24 Aug 2020   |   News

Paint the town green: Horizon Europe moonshot draws up ‘fast and radical’ plan for sustainable cities

Research, city governance and citizen engagement will play a crucial role in EU mission that aims to make 100 cities in Europe climate neutral by 2030

One of Horizon Europe’s five new research missions will strive to make 100 European cities climate-neutral by 2030, applying a cocktail of research, governance and citizen engagement to become sustainably green and offering role models for other metropolitan areas to follow.

This will provide a critical input for the EU in reaching its target of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions across the continent by 2050.

The exact details of the how the mission will be organised are still under discussion, but an EU official told Science|Business it will “necessarily have to go beyond Horizon Europe,” in particular when it comes to the implementation of relevant technologies.

Within the European Commission, twelve directorates-general are involved in the planning. In parallel, an independent board of 15 experts is drawing up recommendations, to be handed to the commission in September, on how the mission should be run.

As a first step, the board set the overall objective of 100 climate-neutral cities by 2030. This is an ambitious, yet achievable aim, said mission board member Anna-Lisa Boni, secretary general of Eurocities, a network of European cities. “We agreed that we need to act now, fast and in a radical way,” she said.

If its goal is ambitious, the mission is underpinned by much earlier work on reducing the carbon footprint of urban areas, said another mission board member, Barbara Lenz, head of the Institute of Transport Research at the German Aerospace Centre. “It’s not radically new, what is new is this collaboration of the cities, stakeholders from local level and beyond, and researchers as well.”

Boni agrees many of the fundamental ingredients are on hand. “There is a lot already out there in terms of research and innovation. It’s more about the implementation,” she said.

What is radical in comparison to previous EU-funded smart cities programmes is its size. That means much more money is needed. “It is billions of euros, that is the dimension,” said Paulo Ferrão, professor at the Technical University of Lisbon and also a mission board member. “Citizens should not perceive this as a cost, they should see it as an investment,” he said.

The commission has yet to decide how much money it will set aside for the cities mission from its various funding instruments, including Horizon Europe. But whatever the final figure, the 100 cities will largely have to finance the changes needed to reduce their carbon footprint to zero themselves. For most, this will involve a mix of local, national and EU-level investment.

The current financing models will not suffice, Boni said. She suggests one job for the mission should be to develop a new economic model for climate action.

With the mission officially set to launch in only four months, many details on how the programme will be run and with what budget remain undecided. ”While we have been working on a meta-level at the beginning, we are getting closer and closer to defining concrete actions,” said Lenz. 

No prescriptions

According to an interim mission report released in June, the participating cities “will benefit from research, innovation and deployment activities supported under various EU programmes,” but it will be up to them to decide how they use the various tools. “The mission is not prescriptive. It is for the city to come up with solutions,” said Ferrao.

What’s needed is a holistic approach that embraces all the separate elements which contribute to urban pollution, including domestic heating, transport and industry. “The single most important thing is that you can break the silos. In the past, we looked at mobility and buildings [separately], but this is no longer possible if you want to be carbon neutral,” said Ferrao. “We can only win this battle if we crosscut.”

Cities must take a systematic approach, suggests Boni. “It’s about helping cities not just to become excellent in sustainable mobility and energy, or other sectorial bits and pieces, but really to transform urban ecosystems.”

Technology alone won’t fix the problem, Lenz said. “We need massive behavioural change. We know from many studies that we will not get the CO2 reduction goals just from [technical improvements].”

While citizen engagement and education is seen as critical to success, the mission plan is again non-prescriptive. Deciding how to engage citizens with the carbon neutral mission and educate them on sustainability will be the responsibility of individual cities.

Climate City Contract

Local authorities of each of the 100 cities will sign a Climate City Contract, a politically binding agreement to implement different elements of the mission.

“The cities need master plans on how they get there, and they should have a convincing approach to reduc[ing] CO2 emissions,” Lenz said. ”They have to make clear their commitment to being climate neutral and to include the citizens.”

The contracts will reflect the current status of each city. Some of the frontrunners have been working towards climate-neutrality for years and will need backing and resources for deployment, while cities starting from scratch will need help in raising awareness among city authorities as well as with carrying out research.

“The idea is for the mission to be as inclusive as possible, not only [in terms of] geographical balance, but also levels of advancement,” said Boni. The plan is to have three cities per country (with the exception of member states that don’t have three cities).

The inclusivity of the mission is what makes it European, Lenz believes. “This is something very European - that we have this common approach, not a fragmented approach,” she said.” If you look at US or China, there is not this common idea of making things change, but each state, each province is working on their own.”

The finish line

With less than a month to go, the board is working hard on adding finishing touches to its final report, which it will hand over to the EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel on 22 September at the European Research and Innovation Days, the commission’s flagship research and innovation policy event.

The commission will assess the recommendations with reference to Horizon Europe and the other programmes that will be involved. At some point before the end of the year, preparations for the five missions will converge with the rest of the Horizon Europe legislation, which is still pending a final decision on the budget of the research programme.  

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