Why cities must be placed at the core of mitigating climate change


Climate, Energy & Natural Resources

Picture of Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh
Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh

Mayor of Malmö

More than 330 million EU citizens live in urban areas, which amounts to three-quarters of the total population of the European Union, making it one of the most urbanised regions in the world. The percentage of Europeans living in urban areas has steadily increased over time, and this trend of urbanisation is predicted to continue over the coming decades, in the EU as well as globally.

Simultaneously, we also know that cities account for over 70 per cent of global CO2 emissions and consume 65 per cent of the world’s energy. From transport systems to construction, from industrial activities to heating – urban activities are major contributors to levels of greenhouse gas emissions, thus undeniably contributing to making the planet warmer.

Against this backdrop, in an increasingly urbanised world where human activities are centred in urban areas, actions at the local level are crucial if we are to mitigate climate change.

In the form of the European Green Deal, the EU has set an ambitious target: to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The importance of cities in this gigantean task cannot be overstated. Local and regional authorities implement 70 per cent of EU legislation, 70 per cent of climate mitigation and a whopping 90 per cent of climate adaptation measures. Sub-national governments also handle a third of all public spending and manage two thirds of public investment.

Cities and regions are undeniably on board with the European Green Deal. Like many other European cities, the city I represent, Malmö, has set an even more ambitious target: to become climate-neutral by 2030. In line with this highly ambitious target, Malmö has also been chosen by the EU Mission for Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities to become a frontrunner and act as an experimentation and innovation hub to enable all European cities to follow suit by 2050.

Yet, despite the crucial part played by cities and regions, their roles are often limited to that of the implementer. The decision-making process takes place at the EU or national level, and more often than not, no chairs are reserved at the local level table. Cities are instead required to enforce decisions they have had very limited say in.

This needs to change; cities must be part of a systematic dialogue regarding all regulations and directives that will directly impact urban areas in general, and local climate mitigation and adaption in particular.

Cities are also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It is well known that extreme weather events such as heatwaves and heavy rainfall are likely to become much more frequent and intense as climate changes. The built environment in our societies has been designed to suit a particular climate. When that climate changes, so must our cities. An example from my local context is Malmö, which has a coastline of 43km. With sea levels set to rise in the years to come, much of the central parts of the city are under threat of flooding – including our EU-designated core port, crucial rail infrastructure in the Scandinavian-Mediterranean corridor and thousands of homes.

Adapting our vulnerable societies to this changing climate comes at a price. So does of course climate change mitigation.

Therefore, cities must have greater access to funding. EU programmes should include mandatory urban earmarking, and cities and metropolitan areas need better support in their long-term public investments when it comes to climate mitigation and adaptation.

The European Environment Agency (EEA), recently concluded that the EU will miss most of its 2030 climate targets. Leena Ylä-Mononen, the EEA executive director, has called on member states to “urgently strengthen actions to meet Europe’s environment and climate ambitions by 2030”. Europe needs to scale up, and not scale back. With this in mind, the city leaders with ambitious climate agendas are looking on worryingly as Europe braces for the upcoming EU Parliament elections in June. Several countries, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, have recently held national elections, putting previously ambitious climate policies at risk. Due to fears of public backlash, many national governments have been quietly scaling back their commitments. If that were to happen on a European scale, the consequences would spell disaster.

In Malmö, we realised long ago that for the green transition to be sustainable, it must also be affordable. There are undeniable social components to the climate crisis, and without acknowledging and addressing these social components we risk inadvertently exacerbating existing social inequities and stoking public resentment.

That is why we launched the Malmö Commitment together with ICLEI, a network of over 2,500 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. The Malmö Commitment aims to embed social equity at the core of local sustainable development because the whole climate agenda is at risk if we do not apply a people-centric perspective.

Local governance is, by necessity, pragmatic. Global issues inevitably have local ramifications, and at the city level, we are used to facing the consequences of transnational problems. With the threat of national actors scaling back their commitments, handing tools and resources at the local level is not so much a necessity, but potentially the key to achieving what the national level has so far proven unable to do.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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