Conference of Mayors: Translating the EU Green Deal into local actions

The high level event, titled Conference of Mayors: Translating the EU Green Deal into local actions, was organised by the Flemish Government within the framework of the Belgian Presidency of the EU Council. The event took place in Brussels on the 15th of March 2024, split between morning sessions hosted by the European Parliament, and 3 afternoon parallel sessions hosted by the Committee of the Regions.

Conference of Mayors: Translating the EU Green Deal into local actions

Gwendolyn Rutten, Vice President of the Flemish Government, opened the event asking participants to imagine a competition where they had to convince as many people as possible to reduce their emissions and undertake personal actions. In the proposed game, participants would be divided into 2 groups: 1) using the motivation that people can be part of the solutions to achieve set targets; 2) using the motivation of increased energy comfort after renovating their homes. Without any doubt, the second motivation would involve more people. But the question asked by Rutten to the audience was: why can’t we do both?

The event was led by the shining example of the Flemish region and cities, of which 294 out of 300 are committed to the Covenant of Mayors and the Flemish Climate Pact, pledging to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest. The success of the Flemish Pact is mainly due to the transformation of abstract targets into clear and concrete actions that each person can understand: 1 tree per person, 1 meter of cycling lane per person, etc. What if we could transfer and adapt this example to other European regions? How would Europe and our cities look like if we were to plant 1 tree per each inhabitant? We need to make the Green Deal easy for people to understand. Translating the targets into concrete actions that everyone can relate to is crucial.

Climate neutrality can be reached only by the sum of all individual actions and initiatives. The starting point is at the local level. Every single idea or measure will always take place in a city or a town.

Many small efforts can have a huge combined effect.

Maroš Šefčovič, Executive Vice President of the European Commission

One message clearly resonated throughout the conference: cities and local actors, such as climate and energy agencies, must be involved in the planning of EU and national policies and legislations, since day one. Local actors must be put in charge of climate actions, because, at the end of the day, they are the ones on the frontline of climate emergencies and implementing climate actions. The Green Deal must go local. If there is someone that can reduce the gap between abstract goals and concrete measures, these are cities and climate and energy agencies. They no longer want to be told what to do by national and EU institutions. They want to be involved and jointly create and decide on policies.

Action plans developed within the framework of the Covenant of Mayors must be integrated into regional and national strategies. Planning shall be combined with forecasting on what’s to come.

ABB Flanders

The Executive Vice President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, highlighted the importance of establishing more integration and much more collaboration between the European Commission and the local actors.

Cities and agencies main strength is their proximity to people. They can bring universities, SMEs, civil society organisations, etc., together at the same table to discuss challenges and find appropriate solutions. Citizens involvement is also crucial. We shall push for a cultural revolution of our territories to bring the local communities on board. Awareness raising is essential to change the paradigm and bring communities into the journey. We need to show the tangible benefits of what they want to do; to show the value and the impact of their projects.

Kurt Vandenberghe, Director General at the Directorate General for Climate Action of the European Commission, stressed on the fact that achieving climate neutrality requires more than cutting emissions: it’s a matter of implementing substantial changes in our society, tackling industry and economy. There is still a lot to do on housing and transport. It’s time to prioritize these 2 sectors.

Industry and international organisations residing in our cities must be involved in the planning and implementation of SECAPs as well. Real climate neutrality cannot be achieved if we do not take them into account.

Another message that resonated was that it’s time for implementation. The planning phase is passed.

There is a need of more direct access to funds. The EU budget is not enough to implement all the actions needed to reach climate neutrality. It is crucial that the private sector enters into the game and ease financing for cities and local actors. In Leuven, the local authority is bringing together representatives of financing instruments, insurance companies, and private equities, to build a system to implement the city’s climate city contract, developed within the framework of the 100 Cities Mission. Using the words of Mohammed Ridouani, mayor of Leuven, public funds must show the way to easy financing for local authorities and bring on board the private sector. 

Mayors stressed on the importance of networking and knowledge sharing. As also highlighted by both Kurt Vandenberghe, Director General at the Directorate General for Climate Action of the European Commission, and Matthew Baldwin, Deputy Director General at the Directorate General for Energy, the Covenant of Mayors offers the ideal space for cities to do so.

ABB Flanders

The implementation of Article 11 of the governance regulation was also discussed. Although multi-level governance (MLG) dialogues are clearly set, there is a need to push national governments to successfully implementing them, by involving cities, climate and energy agencies and other sub-national actors into national planning, implementation and monitoring, establishing continuous dialogues. MLG dialogues shall also be supported at sub-national level to provide local authorities with the needed and missed expertise. A successful example is the permanent representation of the North-West Croatia Energy Agency in the Zagreb city assembly, providing permanent skills and knowledge at disposal of the local administration to implement climate actions. Cities shall be supported with skilled staff and resources.

Fit for 55 translated into local solutions

FEDARENE proudly organised the parallel session “Fit for 55 translated into local solutions”, moderated by our Secretary General Seamus Hoyne.

Paula Pinho, Director for just transition, consumers, energy security, efficiency and innovation, at the Directorate General for Energy of the European Commission, opened the panel discussion reminding the role that local and regional actors play to make our continent climate neutral.

The regulatory framework of the Fit for 55 is almost finalised, with some further legislations to be approved soon. Director Pinho mentioned the recast of the European Efficiency Directive, foreseeing the obligations for EU member states to set up one-stop shops, at local or regional level, constituting a clear and concrete tool to support citizens. Local and regional authorities are requested to renovate public buildings. The implementation of the Fit for 55 depends on them, as key enablers of its legislations.

Paula Pinho reiterated the importance of the Covenant of Mayors as tool to reach out to smaller cities and bring them along. There is a need to simplify the EU landscape of initiatives and build stronger synergies among them, starting from the Covenant of Mayors, the Green Cities Accord and the 100 Climate Neutral Cities Mission.

Julije Domac, Director of the North-West Croatia Energy Agency and FEDARENE President, spoke of energy agencies as agents of innovation and solution factories. They nowadays constitute one of the biggest workforce for climate and energy in Europe, counting more than 4000 staff members, working with cities’ departments and mayors, and supporting the design and implementation of climate- and energy-related projects.

ABB Flanders

Allison Gilliland, Dublin city’s Local Councillor, presented the 2 underpinning principles of every council’s decision: evidence-base and public consultation. The city mapped the traffic and the air quality and identified the worst routes. It thus decided to re-route the private cars just passing through the city, and at the same time improve cycling lane and public transport. To support SMEs and their delivery services, the city is now implementing a pilot creating small delivery hubs and subsiding cargo bikes for deliveries. This is a great example of how cities and SMEs can co-create win-win solutions, combining financial support and expertise.

Building renovation was also a key topic of the session.  Tine Heyse, Deputy Mayor of Ghent, stressed on the importance of combining and considering social aspects when planning climate actions. In the city of Ghent, the 11% of residential building is reserved to social housing. The plan is to increase it to 20%: people in a situation of energy poverty are on the rental market, if these people can move to social housing and the city invest to make social houses climate neutral, these people will benefit of a very good and climate neutral solution created for them.

Ghent’s actions on energy poverty also foresee direct financial support, decreasing by 50% energy bills of vulnerable people. Furthermore, the city launched a building renovation programme, dedicated to homeowners who cannot renovate due to lack of money: the city is providing them with 45k euro to be repaid only once and if the house is sold.

Dublin is instead combining renovation with digitalization: older housing complexes are here scanned through digital modelling to check four different potential types of interventions and choose the best one to increase liveable experience of people while at the same time, making them climate neutral.

In Maribor, the Energy Agency of Podravje, led by FEDARENE Vice President Vlasta Krmelj, carried out public consultation with local communities and other key stakeholders to convince them in embarking in a new approach mixing public and private funding to carry out massive renovation of buildings.

Not only we have better buildings, but we see there is something to be proud of.

Vlasta Krmelj, Mayor of Selnica ob Dravi, Director of the Energy Agency of Podravje and FEDARENE Vice President for Financing.

When it comes to small municipalities, smaller steps are necessary, but they are much more important. Selnica ob Dravi, for example, is creating continuous dialogues with the citizens with the aim of developing energy communities and support crowdfunding for climate actions. Dialogues are also necessary to have communities understand concepts such as resilience and climate neutrality, and to better understand the reasons behind climate disasters, as the floods that hit the town back in August 2023.

Something that struck Paula Pinho attention was the fact that, when the audience was asked whether they sought support from one-stop shops when renovating their homes, none answered yes. This is a clear sign of how communication is important, and how this shall lead to consultation and citizens involvement.

Information, communication, education cannot stop! Even after a long time, they are still part of (energy agencies’) job description

Paula Pinho, Director at the Directorate General for Energy

To conclude the session, panellists shared their hopes for the upcoming new formation of the European Parliament and Commission. First of all, the hope is that climate remains a (or the) priority, with the suggestion of creating national ministries for Climate.

Panellists also requested more clarity on the vision for a climate – friendly and sustainable industry in Europe and Europe’s competitiveness and attractiveness for SMEs. An idea would be to create one-stop shops for businesses to train and support them towards climate neutrality.

Melissa Miklos, FEDARENE

Seamus Hoyne concluded the session launching 4 key messages:

  • let’s use the right (and simple) language that convinces people, not our technical / European jargon when talking about climate neutrality;
  • We don’t have time for perfection. We need to move to progress. We have to take actions and wait no longer.
  • We need to do things smartly. Technology and data are important, but we need to be smart.
  • We spent the day talking about the European and the local level. It’s time to bring the dialogue to the national level.