Cities’ zero emissions (over) ambition faces reality check – POLITICO

Cities raised eyebrows when they announced they’d embarked on a race to hit zero-emissions by 2030. As reality sets in, some now admit the target may be more aspiration than achievable.

As part of an EU-funded scheme announced earlier this year, a clutch of 100 EU cities and 12 from outside the bloc pledged to reach climate neutrality by the end of the decade and signed up to receive EU support to achieve that goal.

The cities are on the hook to submit plans for how they’ll get their emissions down to zero, which will then get a sign of approval from the European Commission with the aim of attracting private investment.

Although that 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, this summer announced it was abandoning a previous bid to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025 — a bet it had hoped to win with an aggressive overhaul of its heating, transport and building systems. The plan involved rolling out more cycling lanes, retrofitting homes on a large scale and replacing coal-fired electricity with biomass.

For years, the city made major strides toward that goal. But in August, local authorities told residents the target was out of reach. A city plant that used household garbage to produce power failed to secure funding to build a carbon capture and carbon storage (CCS) facility to sequester its emissions — a key component of the overall plan.

With one of the world’s greenest cities struggling to make it to zero, many say the chances for other urban centers are looking slim.

That’s bad news, as cities are key emitters. Globally, they account for more than 70 percent of CO2 emissions. According to a major report from the U.N.’s climate science panel, keeping climate change in check will require an overhaul in how cities “are designed, constructed, managed.”

“We know that an increasing share of the population of the EU is living in cities and that many of the solutions to the decarbonization challenge — whether it’s in the energy sector, smart and clean mobility or the heating and cooling of buildings — are very present in our cities,” said Deputy Director of the Commission’s mobility and transport department Patrick Child, who is in charge of the climate-neutral cities scheme.

Drawing up 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 always seemed out of reach.

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

Both cities have attempted to turn things around recently.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo was an early champion of the green-minded 15-minute city concept and last year allocated €250 million to make the city bike-friendly by 2026 — a plan that involves building out bike lanes, replacing parking spaces with bike parking and getting motorcycle users to pay for parking.

But those measures have led some to brand her as too radical and prompted backlash from residents who depend on their cars, suggesting that forcing through the more ambitious changes required to hit net-zero would not be easy.

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

The city’s mayor, Roberto Gualtieri, put sustainability at the center of his 2021 electoral campaign and recently announced an emissions-reduction plan that involves boosting sustainable mobility and public transport, urban reforestation and targeted efforts to improve the energy efficiency of buildings.

The Italian capital’s plan to lower emissions also involves the construction of a waste-to-energy plant that will convert trash to energy — but it is betting on the same immature CCS technology that let down Copenhagen to compensate for the plant’s emissions.

‘Not feasible’

The EU Commission plan is too vague in how it defines climate neutrality and not everyone agrees what the term even means | Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

The targets are “not feasible at all” — no matter the city, according to Floriane Ortega, a lecturer of climate change and cities at SciencesPo political college in Paris.

She criticized the Commission plan for being vague in how it defines climate neutrality, pointing out that not everyone agrees what the term even means.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) featured a clear definition in its glossary, but corporates — which have been leading the discussion — contributed to muddy its meaning over time,” Ortega pointed out.

The initiative also only accounts for so-called scope 1 and scope 2 emissions — planet-warming gases within city boundaries and the electricity supplied by the grid, respectively. That leaves out scope 3 emissions, which encompass emissions related to the goods and services that cities rely on.

“Anything from the purchase of a new iPhone to the construction of a new road would fall under scope 3,” Ortega said, hinting that excluding those emissions from the calculus would mean cities are underreporting their true climate impact.

Despite those pitfalls, even critics of the scheme say it’s an added incentive for cities to make climate a top priority.

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

“We are now renovating 200 schools and, instead of only insulating them, we chose to replace their gas-based heating system with heat pumps,” he said, stressing that the municipality would likely have acted differently if it wasn’t for its net-zero pledge.

“Maybe we won’t hit net-zero by 2030, but we would have set ourselves in the right direction, so that future decisions will be aligned with an ambition that is today indispensable,” he argued.

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

Aitor Hernández-Morales contributed reporting.

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