Moving towards climate neutrality, which includes a net-zero greenhouse gas impact, is not easy. Consider, for example, Denmark’s capital Copenhagen, a champion of green policies, which started working on decarbonisation goals in 2012. It was determined to become the world’s first net-zero capital by 2025. To achieve this, the city revolutionized its heating, transport and building systems, retrofitting homes to optimize energy consumption and replacing coal-fired electricity with biomass. But in 2022 the municipal government had to admit that it would not reach its goal: the city would not be able to build in time a carbon capture and carbon storage (CCS) facility which was essential for net zero. Still, Copenhagen is on track to reduce emissions by about 82% by 2025 compared to 2010. Many cities would be happy to claim such results, but the Danish city is not alone in its efforts.
Over 100 European cities have pledged to become climate-neutral smart cities by 2030, testing the best methods to reduce emissions, acting as experimentation and innovation hubs for all the other urban centres in the EU. The idea is to contribute to the European Green Deal, helping to enable the EU to reduce climate emissions by 55% by 2030 and to become climate-neutral by 2050. “Becoming climate-neutral is a very tall order, particularly for such a diverse group of cities ranging from capitals to small towns, with different sources of CO2 emissions. I am quite sceptical that it can be reached by that date” says Floriane Ortega, responsible for the climate mitigation and adaptation strategies at SETEC organisation, a French engineering group. One reason is the scope of action: emissions don’t respect administrative boundaries; carbon reduction initiatives are effective only if they impact on a relatively large geographical area, which may not be under the control of the city government. In addition, cities measure their carbon footprint based on the activities and facilities that their local government own or operate – municipal fleet, waste management, buildings – which only account for a minor share of total city-wide emissions. So cities efforts, even if they are successful, may not suffice to reach net-zero for the whole urban area. On the other hand, if cities pick the right priorities, selecting the activities with the highest carbon intensity, they can make good progress. “Transport most commonly generates approximately 30% of emissions, followed by buildings' energy consumption with about 25% in developed cities” explains Ortega “these areas are a good starting point for decarbonisation”. Of course, both require public-private collaboration supported by appropriate policies. Buying a few electric buses won’t make it. City administrations need to be supported by green policies at regional and national level.
Take, for example, Kozani in Western Macedonia, Greece, one of the net-zero 100 cities which faces a harder challenge than many other municipalities. Deep on the Greek Balkans border, the city, with its 70,000 inhabitants, was long known as the energy capital of the country with 7 lignite power plants and a total of 2.7 MW installed capacity. What was the wealth of the region is now a major problem, because of its high level of CO2 emissions. Following the Greek national energy strategy, the city decided to move to renewable energies and gradually close the power plants: 4 have already been decommissioned and the other 3 will be closed by 2028. Multiple national and European funds are supporting Kozani’s transition to renewable energies, with a focus on photovoltaic power and the ultimate ambition to become a Green Hydrogen Valley, building a green economy based on hydrogen. Hellenic Petroleum recently completed the largest Greek solar power plant in Kozani and work has started on a new natural gas pipeline, the first in the country able to carry hydrogen. “We need to accelerate this transition to create new jobs and compensate for the closure of the power plants” says Theodoros Giourkas from Kozani’s CLuBE, a cluster of all the main stakeholders of the metropolitan area working together for decarbonisation and innovation in the region. The city has already substantially cut CO2 emissions between 2010 and 2020 and is now scaling up action to achieve net-zero by the end of this decade, as outlined in the new Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plan (SECAP). Learning from other cities’ good practices of decarbonisation (for example through the Stardust project), Kozani is focusing on e-mobility and the decarbonisation of public buildings. Besides retro-fitting buildings with photovoltaic energy and smart monitoring systems to optimise energy consumption, the city recently inaugurated the first bioclimatic school complex sustained only by renewable energies. And the list of planned initiatives is too long to report.
Move a thousand kilometres north-east and you will reach Cluji-Napoca, the second largest city in Romania, with a very different profile from Kozani, but a similar determination to reach net-zero by 2030. The unofficial capital of Transylvania (yes, that region – famous for Count Dracula), Cluji-Napoca formed a local Net-Zero coalition and consulted with the World Bank to identify the main sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the city, resulting in a comprehensive list of actions to reduce these emissions by over 80%, compared to their 2011 value. The city identified its main challenges as the poor energy performance of its private and public buildings, traffic congestion and air pollution, as well as an underdeveloped system of green spaces at the city and metropolitan levels. To deal with these challenges, Cluji-Napoca invested in the deep renovation of public and commercial buildings, as well as the urban regeneration of residential buildings. In recent years the city has been implementing an ambitious electro-mobility programme, purchasing electric and hydrogen buses, with the goal to achieve a fully electric public transport fleet by 2026, and installing electric charging infrastructures (with the support of the STARDUST project). But the heart of the plan is to promote a green city environment, with a continued expansion of green areas (200 hectares planned by 2030), new cycle lanes, and more “walkable city” areas restraining traffic. “The focus is on promoting a change of people’s mindset and behaviour, encouraging public transportation and sustainable personal mobility” says Melania Blidar, project manager of the Cluji Metropolitan area “Otherwise the green initiatives cannot have a lasting effect”.
Kozani and Cluji-Napoca are not celebrated for their green choices as European capitals like Copenhagen or Paris, but they have ambitious plans and are making remarkable efforts to turn into low-carbon cities. Perhaps they will not get to the moon, but they will definitely land close to some stars and point the way to the many other European cities struggling with pollution and high CO2 emissions.
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