Horizon Europe mission on carbon-neutral cities kicks into gear

25 May 2022 | News

Years in the making, the R&I mission is finally spurring action on the ground to help 112 cities transition to net zero by 2030

After years in the European Commission’s kitchen, the cities mission is kicking into gear as 112 European cities take on the task of transitioning to climate neutrality by the end of the decade.

Masterminded by the previous European Commission, the mission officially launched as part of the Horizon Europe research programme last September. Around the same time, the Commission set out on a search for willing participants.

By January, more than 350 cities submitted applications, with 112 making the final cut last month. Some are big metropolitan areas such as Amsterdam and Barcelona, others are smaller, such as Košice in Slovakia or Cork in Ireland. Some have been on a net-zero journey for a while, others are taking their first steps.

To kick off the mission, the Commission is putting €360 million in research and coordination projects, but the bulk of the work will now lie on the shoulders of the cities that have signed up to be guided towards climate neutrality.

In the coming weeks and months, the Commission is asking the cities to come up with action plans on getting to the final destination, net zero by 2030, with the help of a team of 34 organisations it has selected to run an EU-wide support platform.

Thomas Osdoba, the coordinator of the cities platform, says a lot of work lies ahead for the cities in the coming decade. Helping them transition to carbon neutrality is essential if the EU wants to become net zero by 2050. “That’s well understood. How to do that is less well understood,” Osdoba tells Science|Business.

Starting point

With the cities selected, the work starts now, said Matthew Baldwin, the head of the mission at the Commission.

While local governments are busy drafting action and finance plans for achieving carbon neutrality by 2030, the mission platform is kicking off its work. On 13 June, the cities will come together in a joint conference to discuss the way forward.

Baldwin says the Commission is not prescribing what they must do beyond presenting a solid plan. Each city has to come up with its own formula, depending on its strengths and weaknesses. “We’re not trying to be too top down to what the plan should look like,” said Baldwin. He notes the plans may also not be the final ones. “If everyone knew [how to get there] now, it would be so much easier.”

Bologna, an Italian city home to almost 400,000 people, is one of the 112 municipalities taking part. The city already has strategies for energy, urban mobility, urban planning, a regulation for renewables, all of which have a climate dimension. There’s also a city assembly where the public can have a say in how the city is run, with much of the debate focused on greening.

All this now serves as a base for Bologna’s transition on which the mission will build. “These were strong elements of the application we submitted,” says Anna Lisa Boni, one of 11 deputy mayors in the city government, in charge of European policies and funding and the ecological transition. “The mission is helping accelerate and [put on] the pressure to deliver faster.”

On Bologna’s to-do list is decarbonising public transport with the help of trams, hydrogen and electric bus fleets, and bicycles, boosting energy efficiency, accelerating electrification, revamping waste management, and establishing a circular economy, with a focus on transforming waste into gas and using up excess renewable electricity.

The University of Bologna, one of the leading universities in the country, is also on board with the mission, having committed to transforming many of its own buildings. It will also contribute research and innovation projects to the mission.

The pathway to net zero is crafted by Bologna but the mission will now help speed up the work. It’ll also give the city a stamp of approval, which the Commission hopes will help encourage private investors to put their weight behind the city’s goals.

The cities platform

As the cities kick into action, Commission is taking a step back. It’s providing the funds from Horizon Europe and its political backing, but the mission platform will now run the show.

The platform brings together universities, research institutions, city networks, innovation and leadership organisations with know-how on citizen engagement, democratic processes, governance, social innovation and technical details.

“[The cities] come to us with their distinct plans and policies, and we take them through a systematic process of looking at their strategies, how they engage their businesses, citizens and stakeholders,” says Osdoba.

For many cities, finance will be the first order of business. Everyone can craft ambitious plans for transforming a city’s transport networks but few municipalities will have the money ready to go.

Here, together with the action plans, the cities are asked to present business plans, and many hope the platform can help them figure out a formula for funding ambitious projects.

Osdoba says the platform is ready to support. The first step will be helping cities understand their needs and start seeing its investments through the lens of climate policy. The next step will be figuring out how to leverage private capital.

While there is often capital ready to be mobilised, it often fails to reach the right projects. It should be guided there with the help of better policy and fewer obstacles popping up on the way. “There are tremendous opportunities to use public resources to leverage private capital,” says Osdoba. He estimates an average European city in Europe with a population of about 100,000 people will need roughly €1 billion to become climate neutral.

Part of this money will also have to come from EU and national budgets, notes Osdoba.

Bologna is already weighing its investments in terms of carbon dioxide reduction. “Public investments are on the table and we’re doing a business plan based on that, but we’ll now open the cities contract to other actors, and see who will join, with precise quantification in terms both of money and CO2 reduction,” said Boni.

She adds Bologna has big expectations for the platform. “The idea is to have a platform that helps us share frustrations, models and find solutions.”

National context

Beyond finance, there are national laws that some worry may come in the way of key policies taking cities forward to net-zero. The platform hopes to give cities a voice in pushing back against such legislation.  

In Bologna, the national culture rules are in the way of expanding the city’s renewable capacity. Solar is the only way to go for the city, but the authorities dictate that solar panels must be red in the historical city, not the usual black colour. But red solar panels are more expensive and less effective.

This is only one of Bologna’s many struggles. As part of the mission, Boni says, “we want to create a one stop shop for citizens that are struggling against the bureaucracy and also the enterprises to help them apply and install renewable energy.”

Boni hopes having nine cities be part of the mission in Italy will help put pressure on the national government.

The missions platform will also play a role here in facilitating the conversations, giving a collective voice to the cities and helping them grow into advocates for climate action.

“There’s a lot of incoherence in the way funding is providing for infrastructure and the emerging understanding of what cities should do to achieve climate neutrality,” says Osdoba. “We’ll help cities navigate and engage with national governments as much as we can.”

But at the end of the day, each one of the cities is on a personal journey, and some might not even reach the goal on time. “There are 112 cities working on this, they’re not all going to work in the same, at the same speed, they will not all be 100% successful. That diversity is the point,” says Osdoba.

The Commission is giving the cities the tools and the political backing to get there, but now the success of the Commission-set mission is in their hands. Baldwin says whether they choose to follow through with the mission is their call.

“We have no legal tools to pursue cities. They’ve applied and we have selected them. In the end, if they don’t choose to do it, it’s their choice. We’ll do anything we can to get them get there,” says Baldwin.

But he’s positive the mission will succeed and even go beyond its initial goal. “I’m actually thinking, given the strength of interest, it’ll be the other way around. You’ll find many cities signing up as we go along.”

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