Regions fighting climate change


Led by cities, EU regions are playing a frontline role in the fight against climate change as they make key investment decisions regarding the new generation of clean energy and transport projects.

Regions are playing an increasingly visible role in the 27-member European Union's drive to reduce carbon emissions.

Led by urban areas, local authorities are taking matters into their own hands, experimenting with innovative green initiatives, cooperating with private industry and sharing best practice with each other in order to lead the fight against climate change ‘on the ground’.

With regions and cities taking steps on their own accord, national and EU authorities have begun to recognise that these efforts need to be supported. Thus the EU is increasingly targeting funds towards such strategic regional initiatives.

EU-level work concentrates on adding to current understanding of adaptation, identifying strategies and instruments for financing, and helping to develop international cooperation. 

Regions make their voices heard

Historically, the sub-national level has not been a major player in the global drive to combat climate change, but this has started to change in recent years.

With international negotiations on post-Kyoto agreement dragging on, some regions have decided to take matters into their own hands.

Recognition is growing that Europe’s regions are well-positioned to turn political commitments made at European and national level – which create the momentum for change – into concrete action.

The EU's Lisbon Treaty made a specific reference to the importance of regions in Brussels decision-making for the first time, paving the way for more assertive action by regional leaders across the policy spectrum.

Regions have a role to play in ensuring that the EU institutions respect the principle of 'subsidiarity' as enshrined by the Lisbon Treaty, according to which the European Union does not take action "unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level".

"Climate change strategies may be decided at EU level, but it is at the regional level that real action is taken," says Michèle Sabban, president of the Assembly of European Regions (AER).

Changing the energy landscape: with EU funding

Regions are expected to play a major role in changing the energy landscape of Europe, with sub-national actors set to determine the mix of fuels – such as oil, gas, coal or renewable energy – which will be necessary to contribute to energy security and sustainable economic growth (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on ‘Efficient Energy: Making savings at source’).

In fact, the EU has already made significant progress in empowering its regions to fight climate change. Structural and cohesion funding for the 2007-2013 period, for example, earmarked €100 billion to support eco-innovation, environmental risk-protection measures, clean technologies and enterprises at local level.

"While lengthy international negotiations take place, the regions are gearing up to get to work and act on many key energy-related issues, as energy is a multi-faceted domain," says Sabban.

Among these are spatial planning, subsidies for local energy investments, innovation and education policies, public procurement, transport, awareness-raising and implementing renewable energy strategies using local resources.

But cities' access to funding for green policies is proving a major stumbling block, and if they are to make progress in combating climate change, then more money will have to be made available (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on ‘Cities and climate change’).

Some progress has been made in this regard. The European Investment Bank (EIB) invested €21 billion in climate action in 2010, around 20% of its overall lending.  €19 billion of this was spent in EU countries.

Most of the bank’s climate action focuses on two areas: low-carbon investments designed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and projects designed to improve adaptation to climate-change impacts.

In 2010, the EIB funded projects in sectors as diverse as energy, transport, water, wastewater, solid waste, forestry, R&D and innovation. Funding was allocated to energy efficiency, renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, clean transport and forestation projects, among others.   

Cities lead the way

Research has shown that cities emit around three-quarters of all greenhouse gases and consume a disproportionate share of natural resources relative to their surface area.

Cities therefore have a key role to play in mitigating global warming. Most of the emissions in cities can be traced back to inefficient energy and insulation systems.

As a result, improving the energy efficiency of buildings has become a central part of EU efforts to combat climate change, first under the Kyoto Protocol, and later with the bloc’s pledge to achieve a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

The European Commission estimates that the building sector accounts for up to 40% of the EU's final energy consumption.

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) is the cornerstone of EU legislation on energy-savings in the built environment, but progress in transposing its provisions into national law has been patchy (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on ‘Green buildings’).

The Commission’s 2050 roadmap for a competitive low-carbon economy, meanwhile, obliges member states to roll out smart electricity meters for at least 80% of consumers by 2020.

Covenant of Mayors

Other innovations abound. Stockholm and New York, for example, both use information and communication technologies (ICT) to manage low-emission traffic zones.

Former London Deputy Mayor Nicky Gavron, who is widely seen as a pioneer in sustainable city planning, told EURACTIV that "cities can have an easier time fulfilling ambitious environmental objectives".

The reason for this, Gavron explained, is that cities have the planning ability. "They in fact run most of the environmental infrastructure – and build it. They run transport. They also have that density of property, and activity, and population, which means that it is going to be easier – in a way – to reduce emissions in cities," she said.

Other major European cities have already taken significant policy steps to reduce their emissions. Home to 80% of EU citizens and 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, urban areas play a key role in fighting climate change.

Since February 2009, over 2,800 have been coordinating action in a pledge to reduce their CO2 emissions by more than the EU's 20% target for 2020.

This so-called Covenant of Mayors – first launched in February 2009 as a European Commission initiative – recognises that cities have a particular responsibility to contribute to the fight against climate change.

Regions cooperate with industry

The private sector has taken note of the new direction of EU policy and many large multinational corporations working on green energy solutions now deal directly with regional actors.

Indeed, regional authorities have been putting plans in place with businesses to deploy low-carbon technologies even in the absence of a global pact on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

One such partnership was set up by the Assembly of European Regions and GE Energy, in a bid to support the EU's environmental strategy by implementing actual European solutions at regional and local level.

Ricardo Cordoba, GE Energy’s president for Western Europe and Northern Africa, argued that the expertise of large companies can play "a vital role in helping accomplish concrete regional objectives".

Cordoba claimed that relationships like that between GE Energy and the AER open gateways "between regional decision-makers and GE Energy's expertise, providing a forum for the exchange of knowledge, experience and benchmarks".

"The time to act is now and we feel this relationship is a huge step forward towards supporting our governments and tackling climate change head-on," he said.

Meanwhile, a report by technology giant IBM, entitled 'A Vision of Smarter Cities', makes the case for cities to use new technologies to make optimal use of finite resources, such as water and energy, or better manage road traffic.

Adapting to climate change

A White Paper on the EU’s climate change adaptation policy – published by the European Commission at the end of 2009 – recognised that most individual adaptation measures need to happen at local or regional level and made the case for multilevel governance in fighting climate change.

The Commission’s directorate-general for climate action, created in 2010, seeks to ensure that climate change is a priority of all EU policies, particularly those most vulnerable to the phenomenon, like agriculture, marine affairs, energy and regional policy (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on ‘EU climate change adaptation policy’).

DG Climate Action is currently working with experts from different countries and sectors to develop a comprehensive adaptation strategy for publication in 2013.

Cities everywhere have been slow to take action, but they are now starting to rise up to their responsibilities.

London, US cities leading way on adaptation

The Greater London Authority announced in early 2005 that it was developing a climate adaptation strategy, the first of its kind for a global city.

London is already feeling the effects of climate change. Sea-level rise relative to the land is now widely accepted as occurring at 6mm/year at high tide in the London area.

Indeed, with the 2012 Olympic Games a significant proportion of current and future development will be in East London, which could increasingly be at risk from tidal flooding.

"More preventative and adaptive measures will therefore be needed, including the construction of appropriate flood defences in new developments," the Greater London Authority recognises.

Meanwhile in the United States, dozens of cities are already going beyond efforts to mitigate climate change with lower greenhouse gas emissions by adopting adaptation policies.

ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA, the US arm of an association of over 1,200 local government members committed to sustainable development worldwide, launched a Climate Resilient Communities programme in 2010 to help cities study the effects of climate change and finance ways to adapt.

Nearly 600 local governments – representing a quarter of the US population – have signed up.

Among those US cities that have already taken action to adapt to the effects of climate change are New Orleans, which is steadily sinking.

Authorities there have taken steps to elevate homes and rebuild levees, and locals still recovering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 need no reminding of the importance of being prepared.

Other cities to have introduced adaptation policies are Chula Vista in San Diego County, California, where new waterfront buildings are now required to have higher foundations due to the fact that sea levels are projected to rise by 12-18 inches in the next 40 years.

Rising sea levels are also projected around New York City, where wastewater treatment plants are elevating their pumps. The city has a $1.5 billion, 20-year plan for green infrastructure to help manage storm-water runoff from increasingly powerful storms.

Rural areas playing catch up

Rural areas have a major part to play in reducing carbon emissions too.

According to the European Commission, global agricultural production needs to be doubled by 2050 to feed the world. But at the same time, it says, this will have to be done with less water and fewer pesticides and greenhouse gas emissions, amid growing competition for land.

The Commission argues that European farming will be among the first sectors to be seriously affected by climate change, with two board categories of impact to be expected:

  • Decreasing rainfall is expected to become a serious problem in many regions.
  • Extreme weather events like sudden heat waves, droughts, storms and floods are expected to become more frequent phenomena.

Predominantly rural regions must therefore be included in the EU’s strategy for fighting climate change, officials insist.

The Commission is keen to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in a way that unlocks the potential of rural areas to contribute to the bloc's economic growth strategy for 2020 – including its carbon emission reduction ambitions.

The EU executive believes that a revamped rural development policy can contribute to the 'Europe 2020' strategy by fostering green and innovative technologies, and encouraging investment in skills, training and entrepreneurship.

It can also boost competitiveness by promoting farming that uses and manages resources in a sustainable manner, the Commission argues.

Officials stress that EU policy should be reformed to help develop a low-carbon rural economy.

"Future rural development needs more support for competitiveness in an environmentally sustainable way," the Commission notes, citing the provision of aid for investments in renewable energy, such as biogas, to help farmers produce their own energy from manure as one way in which the EU can help.

Europe is awash with good ideas being implemented by cities and rural communities, but it remains to be seen whether others can learn from these examples and help the EU as a whole to achieve its climate targets.

Since taking office in early 2010, EU Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn has consistently called for cities and regions to be granted a greater role in developing and implementing EU policies.

"We will need to support cities with targeted investment to bring Europe forwards - because it is in the cities, where economic, environmental and social problems can be expected to hit the hardest," Hahn argued in a June 2010 speech.

"Realising new energy schemes or social innovation will - for instance - require massive financial means," the commissioner said, warning that "the financial burden cannot only be with cities, but needs to be shared with regional and national governments as well as the European Union".

Michèle Sabban, president of the Assembly of European Regions (AER), told EURACTIV that while she agreed "completely" with Commissioner Hahn's sentiments regarding the role played by regions and cities, she wanted all actors to "move beyond words to real action".

If regions are not given a more central role in the EU's guiding strategies for the future, its grand plans will fail, Sabban cautioned. "Barroso failed to take the regions into account in his European recovery plan, and is now seeing the results in Greece, Spain and Portugal," she claimed.

The AER president warned that "the regions aren't going to wait for orders from the Commission" when it comes to taking action on energy reform. "They're taking this responsibility and power for themselves," she said.

EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger has argued that the Covenant of Mayors is "fundamentally a key instrument of the EU energy policy," because "cities and regions have the capacity to act on the most relevant sectors of our energy demand".

"If most European regions and cities joined the Covenant of Mayors, more than half of the work to attain our 20% target would be done!" Oettinger claimed.

Covenant cities "apply the Lisbon Treaty principle of territorial cohesion," and regions "share their know-how" with their peers in order to "make their achievements replicable," the commissioner explained.

Luxembourg MEP Claude Turmes, vice-president of the Greens in the European Parliament and a self-professed "promoter" of the Covenant of Mayors, expressed hope that the European Commission would "finally deliver funding for green investments in cities and municipalities, as promised by […] President Barroso, thanks to pressure from the Greens".

"At a moment when the EU's solidarity is more than ever at stake, helping local communities in the EU to invest and create thousands of local jobs while reducing the EU's energy dependency is exactly the type of decision which would help regain the confidence of local decision-makers and the citizens they represent," Turmes said.

Committee of the Regions (CoRVice-President Ramón Luis Valcárcel Siso argues that "many cities and towns lack the resources to face these issues on their own, and financial and administrative support on the ground is vital if they are to succeed".

"That is why the role of regions as supporting structures within the Covenant of Mayors is so important. The Committee of the Regions will focus its efforts on encouraging more of these important stakeholders to take the Covenant of Mayors pledge," Siso said.

Philippe Maystadt, president of the European Investment Bank (EIB), said urban areas could contribute significantly to combating climate change, as they account for 70% of EU energy consumption.

"Most of this is related to buildings, urban transport and small firms. We believe that cities have a substantial potential to both reduce this consumption and to make significant progress in the adoption of renewable energy solutions, such as solar photovoltaic technologies," Maystadt argued.

Cities' lobby group Eurocities argues that the response to the energy challenge "cannot be found merely by adopting a new sectoral policy". "Instead we must refine all of our public policies to consistently address climate change and encourage mobilisation of our territories," it says.

Cities are "ready to mobilise our resources and make climate change a priority in our budgeting decisions. We emphasise the need for close cooperation between the various levels of action, both in drafting laws and directives and in funding initiatives, given the diversity of the local public policies involved," Eurocities says.

With extreme weather sweeping across the United States with increasing regularity and local populations struggling with heat waves and flooding, many local governments are convinced they need to act, according to Brian Holland, director of climate programmes at ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA.

"We’re already seeing consequences of climate change, and those will only intensify," Holland told USA Today.

Rising sea levels already cause four to seven overflows each year that harm water treatment, according to David Behar of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. "We expect a nuisance will become a problem," Behar said, adding: "Sea-level rise is inexorable."

Financing climate-change mitigation projects is a challenge for local governments, but not all the changes required need extra money, according to David Bragdon, director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City.

"It’s [about] altering the way we’re doing things. It’s building something to fit the likely conditions of the future," Bragdon told USA Today. 

  • Oct. 2005: European Commission publishes Action Plan for Energy Efficiency, setting EU goal of consuming 20% less energy by 2020.
  • June 2007: Commission publishes Green Paper on climate change adaptation.
  • 10 Feb. 2009: Launch of Covenant of Mayors.
  • 23 Apr. 2009: Updated Renewable Energy Directive gives priority grid access to renewable electricity (EURACTIV 09/12/08).
  • 18 May 2010: EU adopts recast Energy Performance of Buildings Directive.
  • 17 Nov. 2010: European Commission unveils new energy infrastructure package and calls for €200bn investment in energy grids by 2020.
  • 31 Jan. 2011: Commission progress report calls for doubling of capital investments to meet 2020 renewable energy target.
  • 8 March 2011: European Commission adopts ‘Energy Efficiency Action Plan 2011’.
  • 21 June 2011: EU launches ‘Smart Cities and Communities’ initiative.
  • 22 June 2011: European Commission unveils new Energy Efficiency Directive.
  • By end 2011: European Commission to publish communication on sustainable construction.
  • Spring 2013: Commission to report on progress towards achieving 2020 energy efficiency goals.
  • 2013: Commission to publish climate change adaptation strategy.
  • By 2020: Target date for EU to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, source 20% of its energy consumption from renewables and use 20% less energy.

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