Viewpoint: More work needed to lay foundations for the Cities Mission

09 Nov 2021 | Viewpoint

The Commission has fired the starting gun on the project to make 100 cities climate neutral by 2030. But the Global Knowledge Centre for Cities and Climate underpinning it won’t open until 2023 and meantime there is no independent source of science-based advice

Simon Skillings, Senior associate at E3G (left) and Eleonora Moro, Researcher at E3G (right)

The European Commission has launched the Horizon Europe mission to make 100 cities climate neutral by 2030 and inspire other cities to follow suit. The initiative is central to delivering the European Green Deal and identifying priority innovation projects will be critical to its success.

The Commission services cannot do this on their own. Given this, it is concerning that the Global Knowledge Centre for Cities and Climate will not be established until 2023 and that currently there is no organisation appointed to provide independent science-based advice.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President, once referred to the EU’s objective of eliminating emissions as Europe’s “man on the moon moment”. This is a good analogy. Significant innovation will be required, and policies seeking to achieve outcomes by a specific date must deliver measurable objectives in a set time frame. It cannot simply say ‘let a 1,000 flowers bloom’ and hope targets are met.

Measuring progress in reaching set objectives is key to the concept of innovation missions, an idea that has been adopted internationally to accelerate progress towards the Paris Agreement goals.

The EU has also has in its own missions under the Horizon Europe research programme. These aim to bring innovation to bear on pressing challenges by setting measurable goals.

In the case of the Cities Mission, the intention is not only to make 100 cities across the EU climate neutral by 2030, but also that they serve as innovation hubs for all cities to reach this status by 2050.

Making it relevant

Careful selection of large scale research and innovation projects will be critical if the process is to remain faithful to the mission concept. It will be the responsibility of a collective of European Commission services, called the Mission Owners Group, to propose the research and innovation that needs to be done.

This group cannot resort solely to traditional funding practices of selecting from a bottom-up set of proposals submitted by cities or other researchers. Instead, priority research projects should be cross referenced with the current best available knowledge and gaps grouped into themes. These themes should be relevant to not just one, but many cities. In effect, they will represent a set of sub-missions on which to focus in assessing what research and innovation is needed to deliver the Cities Mission objectives.

This is a big ask for a group of Commission officials who are without significant support. It requires a deep knowledge of current best practices to ensure the answer to a particular problem is not out there already.

It also requires technical insight into the most promising research avenues to pursue and this is why a science-based centre of excellence is required to keep up to date with the latest advances. This centre could advise cities on technology adoption as well as guiding research and innovation requirements.

The implementation plan for the Cities Mission proposes the creation of a Global Knowledge Centre for Cities and Climate, but not until 2023. That will be too late to advise on initial research and innovation projects.

The gap could perhaps be bridged by the European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change, a body that  EU Climate Law already foresees setting up and which would be well-placed to provide an independent voice advising on innovation needs.

Going for the prize

Cities are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (70% of global CO2 emissions) and successful delivery of the Cities Mission will go a long way to achieving climate neutrality and the goals of the European Green Deal.

But over and above the technologies needed to achieve this, city authorities often lack the human or financial resources to embark on such a transformation, and require support from national governments and the active participation of citizens.

The EU Cities Mission Implementation Plan recognises this and has proposed a ‘Mission Platform’ to support citizen engagement and provide technical, regulatory, and financial expertise, including support in navigating the range of potential public funding sources

The Cities Mission requires cities to sign ‘Climate City Contracts’ that contain a plan for how they intend to reach climate neutrality by 2030. The critical element of these plans comes not in identifying what cities can do, but what they currently cannot.

The adoption of the EU Cities Mission could represent a step-change in efforts to deliver the European Green Deal. It is now up to the European Commission and the Cities Mission implementation team to fill the gaps, maintain a laser focus on delivering the mission’s objectives and ensure processes are aligned.


Simon Skillings is a senior associate at E3G, a European think tank focussing on the transition needed to address climate change

Eleonora Moro is a researcher at E3G

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