Cities and local municipalities now seek to exert more influence on and participate increasingly in EU policies. To that effect, local authorities have resorted to form their own bottom-up initiatives that are complementary to what is decided in Brussels, notably in the areas of energy and environment.

In our introduction last October, Revolve Magazine highlighted the Covenant of Mayors (CoM) – a European movement involving local and regional authorities who commit to increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy usage on their territories.

On November 29, 2011, the CoM assembled at the European Parliament for its annual ceremony. Some 400 mayors and over 1,100 participants gathered to highlight cities’ and regions’ contributions to Europe’s 2020 Strategy and welcome the 3,000th signatory to the Covenant. Collectively, participants aim to meet and exceed the European Union’s target to reduce 20% of CO2 emissions by 2020.

European Parliament President, Jerzy Buzek, opened the event and emphasized that “climate change is also a matter of local solutions and that the world should rely on the cooperation of cities”. For the important role played by cities and regions, Buzek said this is where “European policies become real for citizens”.

European Commissioner for Energy, Günther Oettinger, claimed that the “impact of local action cannot be underestimated” and expressed his hopes that the Covenant would develop further into a common project to link local action with EU policy.

Claude Turmes, MEP, Greens/European Free Alliance said that “the future of energy has to be centred on towns and cities”.

This development is precisely what the Covenant hopes to achieve by broadening its scope to other key areas of the European Commission’s Resource-efficient Europe Flagship initiative, such as biodiversity and land use, waste and water management or air pollution.

In particular, the Covenant intends to include 20-20-20 targets for integrated water management to attain a 20% increase in water-savings in all sectors, a 20% increase in the number of water courses being renaturalised in order to reduce flood risk and a 20% increase in the volume of water re-used and/or recycled in farming and industry.

Covenant representatives expressed their desire to expand cooperation beyond Europe and share their experiences with their counterparts worldwide, particularly the EU’s Southern and Eastern neighbours.

With the European Green Capital Award 2012 being granted to the Spanish city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, it is clear that it is not only Europe’s major urban centres – Vitoria-Gasteiz has around 240,000 inhabitants – that are making an impact.

According to the Mayor of Vitoria-Gasteiz, Mr. Javier Maroto Aranzábal, winning the award is important “not least because the majority of European citizens live in medium-sized cities. Moreover, being recognized as European Green Capital allows Vitoria-Gasteiz to highlight its uniqueness: whereas most European cities are enclosed by highways, Vitoria-Gasteiz is surrounded by a green belt.”

In today’s stricken financial climate, investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies are often viewed with a critical eye over fears it may undermine economic growth. However, the opposite is true.

“When Sweden was faced with a severe economic crisis in the early 1990s, we took it upon ourselves to grossly alter the way we used and managed our energy system. Examples included connecting all houses to a district heating system, allowing the majority of public buses to use biogas generated from waste management”. – Mr. Ilmar Reepalu, Mayor of Malmö.

Examples, such as Malmö, are encouraging since cities and towns are increasingly assuming responsibility to enforce EU environmental and energy ambitions. With over 3,000 signatories, and more eager to join, the Covenant of Mayors has experienced quite a remarkable growth since its inception in 2008.

Looking towards the future: perhaps the most hopeful thing that came out of the Annual Ceremony is the participation and attendance of a multitude of non-European cities and regions – a tell-tale sign that other parts of the globe are keen to replicate the Covenant’s formula outside of Europe.

Sijbren de Jong is Energy Editor at Revolve Magazine and Research Fellow Energy Security & Climate Change at the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies.