Mayors commit to exceeding EU climate goals

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Over 350 cities united in a pledge to reduce their CO2 emissions by more than the EU’s 20% target for 2020 at the launch ceremony of the Covenant of Mayors yesterday (10 February), with €15 million in financial support from the European Investment Bank in the pipeline. 

The Covenant of Mayors, a European Commission initiative, recognises that cities have a responsibility to contribute to the fight against climate change, as around 80% of CO2 is emitted in urban areas (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). 

The Covenant commits its signatories to producing sustainable energy action plans, which must detail how they plan to reach the promised emissions reductions both in the public and private sectors of the city concerned. The mayors will then have to report on implementation progress at least every two years.

Committee of the Regions President Luc Van den Brande stressed that signing the Covenant is a commitment by the cities as a whole rather than individual mayors, insisting that the election of new city administrations will not change matters. According to him, the next step should be to involve regions in the process, as they play key roles in both energy production and consumption.

EIB announces €15m funding

The European Investment Bank (EIB) announced that it is working with the Commission to set up a €15 million grant fund during the year to support the development of energy efficiency and sustainable energy projects in European cities and regions. The fund would be managed by the bank, which also promised to strengthen its ordinary lending activities to the sector.

Meanwhile, a cross-party group of MEPs accused Commission President José Manuel Barroso and his cabinet of “coming to meet the major city leaders empty-handed”. Claude Turmes (Greens), Umberto Guidoni (GUE), Fiona Hall (ALDE), Mechtild Rothe (PES) and Anders Wijkman (EPP), among others, claimed that €500 million had originally been earmarked for smart energy cities in the EU’s economic recovery plan. However, the promised funding did not find its way to the final draft, going to carbon capture and storage renewables projects instead.

Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs nevertheless argued that as the €3.5 billion reallocated to finance energy projects under the recovery plan represents unspent EU money and would normally be returned to member state budgets, the Commission had to convince governments that spending the funds would bring added value at European level.

“We hoped we could find a fast scheme to support cities,” Piebalgs said of the initial drafting phase. But in reality, distributing funds among numerous actors takes time, he explained. “The money was not enough,” he concluded.

Varying prerequisites for climate battle

The signatory cities have significantly different starting points in terms of how advanced their climate policies are. Hep Monatzeder, a mayor of Munich, told EURACTIV that his city has been working to reduce CO2 emissions since 1991, when it became a member of the Climate Alliance.

In 2007, Munich signed up to the Alliance’s ambitious long-term strategy of reducing carbon emissions by 10% every five years. Munich has consequently set a much more ambitious trajectory for slashing its greenhouse gas emissions than that of the Covenant of Mayors, Monatzeder said. But he cautioned that the same ambition could not be expected of all the cities, because some do not have such advanced climate protection policies.

Eastern EU states in the spotlight

In many of the new Eastern member states, the situation appears to be quite different. Gábor Demszky, the mayor of Budapest, said it is difficult to predict what kind of emissions reductions the city can achieve by 2020, emphasising that measures that work for a “white collar city” may not work in a more industrialised city.

On the other hand, J?nis Birks, the mayor of Riga, said many citizens in Riga are still locked in the old Soviet way of thinking, believing that energy is there to be used, and pay little attention to efficiency measures such as better insulation in homes. 

Energy was cheap during Soviet times, but in the last six years gas tariffs have increased four-fold and heating prices have tripled, giving Latvians very good economic reason to look at efficiency measure, Birks stated.

He said Riga had learnt a lot, particularly from the Nordic countries, which have invested heavily in energy efficiency. It used this knowledge to refurbish its large base of highly inefficient Soviet buildings, the mayor explained. 

If the EU, national governments, municipalities and citizens can pool their resources together, then Europe has a good chance of combating climate change, Birks argued, urging the EU to commit its structural funds to helping member states refurbish and insulate their old buildings.

Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said the battle against climate change "will have to be fought and won in the cities," which consume most of Europe's energy. "This is why the commitment shown by mayors across Europe by signing the Covenant of Mayors sends us a strong message of hope, particularly in the difficult times that we are facing," he concluded.

European Investment Bank President Philippe Maystadt 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 energies solutions such as solar photovoltaic technologies," he argued.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso called for the reinstatement of the 1960s "think globally and act locally" mindset. "I have always rather envied mayors for the directness of your mandate from citizens, and your capacity to respond to local political challenges. As such, mayors are ideally placed to tackle climate change," he said.

cross-party group of MEPs, including Claude Turmes (Greens), Umberto Guidoni  (GUE), Fiona Hall (ALDE), Mechtild Rothe (PES) and Anders Wijkman (EPP) described the Covenant of Mayors as a "big step forward on the 'greening' of the EU's transport and energy policy," but called for funding for the initiative.

"EU cities already have projects in the pipeline worth several billion euros and funding could be easily available with regular calls for proposals and short deadlines. Making these happen by facilitating access to cheap loans would deliver much faster relief in the current crisis situation than the measures proposed in the Barroso plan," they said, criticising the Commission's economic recovery plan.

The European Commission considers cities to be at the heart of the EU's sustainable development efforts. In January 2006, it launched a Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment. But the strategy is limited in scope, since the Union has no direct competence in urban affairs. Meanwhile, EU sectoral policies in the areas of transport, environment and social affairs significantly impact upon cities.

EU ministers responsible for urban and spatial development also attempted to lay the foundations for a European urban policy by signing the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities in May 2007.  

In January 2008, nearly 100 mayors from across Europe signed up to the Commission-backed Covenant of Mayors, a commitment by city leaders to go beyond the EU's own stated aim of slashing CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020. 

  • During 2009: The European Investment Bank and the European Commission to set up a grant fund to support energy efficiency projects in cities.
  • Within the year of signing: Cities must submit their Sustainable Energy Action Plans.

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