Cities: The Focal Point of Climate Action

The author

David de Jager
Urban Energy

This blog post was written by Richard Boehnke.

Cities are a focal point of climate action, both individually and as signatories to large networks dedicated to climate mitigation (e.g., Covenant of Mayors and C40). However, efforts to pledge support, sign an agreement, and publish a local climate strategy with an emissions target do not equate to implementing meaningful climate action. Little data is available to support whether cities are on track to achieving targets or if their targets can be met. For example, with the Netherlands reporting only a 3.8% emissions reduction between 2010 and 2015, municipal governments will be required to take the lead in climate action. Yet, with limited budget and staff working on mitigation, most municipalities are also falling behind on individual climate targets. Ecofys, a Navigant company, investigated which existing best practices could be used by local governments to work towards achieving climate goals.

Opportunities for Local Governments: Best Practices in Climate Action

The study examined 26 best practices from 13 Dutch municipalities. These ranged from community energy ambassadors in Almere, to an energy coalition in Den Bosch, to the investment scheme that led to the construction of large wind turbines in Nijmegen. Civil servants stated the goal of these practices was to act as facilitator, engaging the public and businesses to mediate regulatory and institutional processes. However, more needs to be done to meet ambitious targets.

The First Missing Piece: Collaboration

Listening to other departments’ targets and collaborating on projects is crucial to developing citywide climate solutions. Climate projects typically involve several aspects of city development and are frequently cut due to varying priorities when considering the expense of a specific climate measure. It is possible to use mitigation actions to achieve municipal targets because of the broad impact these actions can have beyond reducing CO2 emissions, like air quality improvement or job creation. Achieving climate targets can be considered a co-benefit when conducting successful and profitable municipal projects.

The Second Missing Piece: Monitoring

Databases like the Klimaatmonitor—which contains key energy and climate statistics for Dutch municipalities—are extremely useful for overviews of municipal progress and national trends. However, there are no clear data or monitoring schemes of local climate projects. This gap limits decision makers because the effects of any given project are not known. Without this data, pilots are less likely to be scaled, best practices are difficult to develop and replicate, and real-time progress cannot be assessed.

A Way Forward

Clear, actionable climate plans are necessary to realize the potential of local climate action. Local governments lack public short- and long-term plans in areas where emissions will be locked in (e.g., district vs. electric heating, hydrogen vs. e-transport, in-depth vs. cursory building renovations). There are several tradeoffs when considering each of these paths, but inaction will only delay the inevitable choice and reduce related short- and mid-term benefits. Robust climate plans require:

  • Emissions targets
  • Emissions baseline
  • Budget
  • Stakeholders
  • Clear measures
  • An implementation plan and timeline
  • A monitoring scheme

If full-bodied plans are implemented, municipalities can share each step of their projects and monitor progress towards achieving local climate goals. With public long-term planning, citizens, cooperatives, and businesses can participate, invest in, and adapt to the municipal energy transition. Municipalities will have to invest a lot more than the currently allocated budgets and manpower to become climate neutral in 20-30 years.

Research conducted for the municipality of Utrecht (350,000 inhabitants) shows that if all measures were realized within the city limits, becoming climate neutral would require investments of about €9.5 billion. However, if the municipality agreed to take part of its investments outside of Utrecht (e.g., funding offshore wind in the North Sea), total investments could be reduced to roughly €4 billion. Ecofys, a Navigant company, proposes that national and municipal governments should agree on a fair effort sharing to reduce overall societal costs.

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