Cities pick up the “heavy lifting” when it comes to fighting climate change and transitioning to fossil fuel-free development models. Energy Cities’ annual conference saw local leaders convening to the energy capital of Europe, Aberdeen, to exchange best practices on such future-oriented models, launch common projects and discuss how to influence European decision making.

Aberdeen at night. Source: Energy Cities

Aberdeen, energy capital of Europe. Source: Aberdeen City Council

Speaking in the opening session, MEP Ian Duncan, member of the European Parliament Environment Committee, used the heavy lifting metaphor commenting that it was easier to “chat in the corridors of national and EU institutions rather than perform the cities’ every day job of keeping the lights on and meeting the electorate face to face”. Indeed, in the field of energy alone, as Mayor of Heidelberg Eckart Würzner pointed out, some cities often undertake the ambitious task of implementing a variety of local, more efficient solutions rather than going for the easy way of “one plan, one company, one contract and one subsidy”.

In this context, the cities of Delft, Riga and Heidelberg noted the newfound interest the Commission is now placing on the local level, as the new Commissioners in charge of energy affairs seem much more supportive of cities’ role than their predecessor. Although the EU’s Energy Union proposal acknowledges this local potential, there is “language to please everyone and virtually no real strategy” in the document, said MEP Duncan.

Deputy Mayor of Delft Stefan Brandligt added that in spite of some good intentions, the project remained too oriented towards gas, pipelines and geopolitics, with no new funding foreseen to empower the local energy transition. Citing gas extraction as the cause of an increase in induced earthquakes in his country the Netherlands, he warned against the risk of being held hostage to one contentious source of power instead of tapping into the wealth of multiple, local ones.

COP21: “Too little, too late”

Cities are not only more directly exposed to climate change but also more committed to fighting it than their national governments, who according to Brandligt  “do too little, too late” in the framework of UN processes. As highlighted by the Mayor of Växjö, a Swedish city which plans to switch all dependence from fossil energy by 2030, the countries where local governments have more competences are also the ones with the strongest climate credentials. In Sweden, where city councils are responsible for most public services, including land use and energy, the average tonne of CO2 per capita is two, well below the EU average[i].

Local governments also have the crucial capacity to involve society at large, thanks to more direct links with businesses and civic organizations, public and private investors. In Paris, networks of citizens representing 10% of the population are being involved in tackling climate questions, along networks of companies making public commitments. In the conference host city of Aberdeen, an advisory group composed of citizens, media representatives, energy companies, retail organisations and universities help steer the city’s sustainable development strategy.

In addition to their potential as a mobilizing force, local authorities can sometimes directly act as energy providers, driven by climate goals and the best interests of their citizens. While this competency is common in Germany or Scandinavian countries, it is steadily emerging in fellow EU member states, like the UK. In Bristol for example, the first city-led energy company has been created and strives to act as a “force for the common good”, not driven by profits or the hunger for more Kwh.

Beyond the social argument, city councils can also adopt the more pragmatic approach of selling the business case of the sustainable energy transition. By way of example, Aberdeen – who now profiles itself as the “energy capital” of Europe – is looking into recycling the skills and expertise of its oil and gas industry to become a leading hub for renewable technology development. With a project launched two weeks ago and lots of others in the pipeline, the city has notably started operating a fleet of zero emission fuel cell buses that is the largest of its kind in Europe.

Europe’s largest hydrogen bus fleet. Source: Aberdeen City Council/Facebook

Europe’s largest hydrogen bus fleet. Source: Aberdeen City Council/Facebook

Writer: Alix Bolle, Energy Cities

[i] In September 2014, the EU average was 6.8