The ambition of zero-emission cities (over) must face the control of reality – POLITICAL

This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a collaborative journalism project that explores the future of cities. Chapter 3 of the project is presented by Holcim.

Cities raised eyebrows when they announced they were on a race to achieve zero emissions by 2030. With the onset of reality, some now admit that the goal may be more aspiration than achievable.

As part of an EU-funded program announced earlier this year, a group of 100 EU cities and 12 outside the bloc have pledged to achieve climate neutrality by the end of the decade and have signed to receive EU support to achieve this goal.

Cities are ready to present plans on how to bring their emissions to zero, which will then receive a sign of approval from the European Commission with the aim of attracting private individuals. investment.

While this all sounds good on paper, cities are likely to struggle to meet their ambitious emissions targets.

Copenhagen, a city known for its ambitious climate plans, announced this summer that it would abandon a previous attempt to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025, a bet it hoped to win with an aggressive overhaul of its heating, transportation systems. and construction. The plan involved building more cycle paths, modernizing homes on a large scale and replacing coal-fired electricity with biomass.

For years, the city has made great strides towards this goal. But in August, local authorities told residents the target was out of reach. A city plant that used household waste to produce energy failed to secure funding to build a carbon capture and storage (CCS) plant to sequester its emissions, a key component of the master plan.

With one of the greenest cities in the world struggling to get to zero, many say the chances for other urban centers seem slim.

This is bad news, as cities are the main sources of emissions. Globally, they account for over 70% of CO2 emissions. According to a major report by the UN climate science panel, keeping climate change in check will require a review of how cities “are designed, built and managed.”

“We know that a growing share of the EU population lives in cities and that many of the solutions to the challenge of decarbonisation – whether it be the energy sector, smart and clean mobility or building heating and cooling – are very present in our cities. ”Said Patrick Child, Deputy Director of the Commission’s Mobility and Transport Department, who is responsible for the climate-neutral cities program.

The drafting of the cities’ so-called “climate city contracts” could take up to a year, he added.

Shaky commitments

Scooter-loving cities like Rome have historically struggled to embrace cleaner forms of transport | Tiziana Fabi / AFP via Getty Images

The list of participating cities includes many that have dragged their feet on climate action or are so sprawling that the target has always seemed out of reach.

Car and scooter-loving cities such as Rome and Paris, for example, have signed up to the 2030 commitment but have historically struggled to embrace cleaner forms of transport.

Both cities have recently tried to change that.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo was one of the earliest supporters of the 15-minute green city concept and last year allocated 250 million euros to make the city bike-friendly by 2026, a plan that includes the construction of cycle paths, the replacement of parking spaces with bicycle parking spaces and convincing motorcycle users to pay for parking.

But those measures have led some to brand it as too radical and have sparked reactions from residents who depend on their cars, suggesting that forcing the more ambitious changes needed to reach net zero would not be easy.

In Rome, Edoardo Zanchini, head of the municipality’s climate department, admitted that reducing emissions to zero by 2030 “is a difficult deadline”.

The mayor of the city, Roberto Gualtieri, has put sustainability at the center of his 2021 election campaign and recently announced an emissions reduction plan that includes the enhancement of sustainable mobility and public transport, urban reforestation and targeted efforts to improve the energy efficiency of buildings.

The Italian capital’s plan to reduce emissions also includes the construction of a waste-to-energy plant that converts waste into energy, but relies on the same immature CCS technology that disappointed Copenhagen to offset the plant’s emissions.

‘Not feasible’

The EU Commission’s plan is too vague in the way it defines climate neutrality and not everyone agrees on the meaning of the term | Nicolas Maeterlinck / Belga / AFP via Getty Images

The goals “are not feasible at all” – regardless of the city, according to Floriane Ortega, a professor of climate change and cities at the SciencesPo political college in Paris.

He criticized the Commission’s plan for being vague in how it defines climate neutrality, pointing out that not everyone agrees on the term’s meaning.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented a clear definition in its glossary, but the companies – who led the discussion – helped to blur its meaning over time,” Ortega said.

The initiative also takes into account the so-called scope 1 and scope 2 emissions: respectively the gases that heat the planet within the city limits and the electricity supplied by the grid. This excludes Scope 3 emissions, which include emissions related to goods and services that cities rely on.

“Anything from buying a new iPhone to building a new road would be in scope 3,” Ortega said, suggesting that excluding those emissions from the calculation would mean cities are underestimating their true climate impact.

Despite these pitfalls, even critics of the program say it is a further incentive for cities to make climate a top priority.

In Rome, commitment has already raised the bar in urban projects, Zanchini said.

“We are renovating 200 schools and, instead of just insulating them, we have chosen to replace their gas heating system with heat pumps,” he said, noting that the municipality would likely have acted differently had it not been for its network. zero.

“Perhaps we will not reach net zero by 2030, but we would have put ourselves in the right direction, so that future decisions are aligned with an ambition that is indispensable today,” he said.

Ortega reiterated the argument that the unattainable goal can lead to tangible progress. “If you ask me if it’s feasible, I say no, but if you ask me if it’s nice to have it, the answer is yes.”

Aitor Hernández-Morales contributed to the reportage.

This article is part of the Global Policy Lab of POLITICO: Living Cities. Chapter 3 of the project is presented by Holcim. The article is produced in full editorial independence by the journalists and editors of POLITICO. Learn more about editorial content submitted by external advertisers. You can sign up for Living Cities here.


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