Making the Green New Deal Happen Blog Series, March 2022: Cities need to be at the heart of climate transition

Thinking & Analysis


Let’s start at the end: According to Hans-Otto Pörtner, one of the Working Group Chairs for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, cited in the latest IPCC report, “the scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

Governments and organisations of all shapes and sizes are on board with this message. The European Green Deal sets the framework for the EU’s plan to keep within the 1.5C lifestyle.

The Urban Dimension

But the task in front of us is even more massive than that. ‘Concerted global action’ is the only way forward – if we don’t work with one another, we will fail. And that’s where city governments are crucial. As the closest level of government to people, and the place where the majority of climate legislation must be implemented, cities play a vital double role. On the one hand, cities must be able to implement broad frameworks like the European Green Deal, and adapt them to their specific local needs. On the other, they must work with local actors, be they residents, local companies or NGOs, to encourage the behaviour change needed to secure that liveable future.

There are many ways that cities can do this. In developing their local climate strategies, many cities have shown more ambition than their national counterparts, with 38% of cities committed to climate neutrality by 2040 and 74% having clear plans in place to do so by 2050 at the latest. Since the introduction of the EU Green Deal in 2019, over 60% of cities have revised their climate target upward, in line with the intermediate target of reducing GHG emission by at least 55% by 2030 in alignment with the European Climate Law. Getting it all done within that rapidly closing window, however, means seizing all opportunities.

Cities and National Recovery Plans

The recovery is one such opportunity. The National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRP) – the EU’s bid to counter the economic and social turmoil of the Covid19 pandemic – set clear priorities to help countries create jobs and to design a green and digital future for all.

With more than one third of the available €673bn targeted towards green investments, we have an opportunity to reshape the EU urban environment, remaking cities as places for people to enjoy healthy and fulfilling lives, and cutting back on some of the chief sources of emissions, such as from buildings and road transport.

That’s why many cities focussed their submissions last year to their national governments in these areas. According to results collected by Eurocities, 79% of cities proposed projects on public transport services, 53% included projects on renovation, and 47% wanted to go forward with the digitalisation of education and public services.

Despite these strong commitments, which fit perfectly with the European level ambitions for the recovery plans, many cities have warned that they were left out of the design of the NRRPs, and are still to be consulted on the implementation phase in their countries.

It would be a great waste, and missed opportunity, not to use this money in the most efficient way possible. Time and again, city administrations have demonstrated that they represent the right investment level to drive real change.

Through the Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal – which brings together 60 city mayors to transmit the powerful message that the sustainable transition is possible, with mayors and cities on board – we see great examples of cities doing just that.

Cities are investing in resources in energy efficient buildings, decarbonising their public transport and designing new and green spaces. Moreover, some cities, like Amsterdam, are already focussing on the post-crisis recovery. The ‘doughnut model’ – an idea developed by economist Kate Raworth – holds that the principle of economic activity is to meet the core needs of all people, while staying within the environmental boundaries of the planet. This concerns especially resource use, and, Amsterdam, already a champion of the circular economy, aims to use this model to become fully circular by 2050.

Implementing the recovery funds at local level will help ensure the long term success of such city-driven projects, make its impact visible to citizens and boost our chances to survive this brief window of opportunity to sustain planetary health.

Cities are natural allies to the EU’s own climate ambitions. However, in some cases, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, national level politics can prove to be a barrier for cities’ ability to do more.

On a broader scale, capitalising on the natural cooperation between cities could be beneficial for developing pan-European projects – the legislation that set out the NRRPs gave seven flagship challenges in areas such as digitalisation and energy efficiency, and encourages cross-border cooperation to meet them. Amsterdam’s model is piquing the interest of other cities, such as Brussels and Copenhagen, and is a great example of how city’s learn from and cooperate with one another. Thanks to networks like Eurocities, there are existing trans-national relationships right across Europe that could be levied for this purpose. In addition, this might involve reworking some of the original submission areas of the NRRPs to where they can have greater impact, such as in cities.

The opportunity for the EU is to boost the green transformation efforts already going on in cities.

For cities; for people and planet, it is to make our voices heard.


*Eurocities was established in 1986. Today it works with over 200 of Europe’s largest cities with more than 130 million residents across 38 countries.

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