Business, Finance & Economics

For mayors committed to climate change, a fete in Brussels


BRUSSELS — A group of mayors made a heady visit to Europe’s capital this week. 

After all, the president of the European Commission said he was envious of their political authority. He was among the EU leaders who told the mayors their efforts would be key in solving the globe’s biggest challenge “to be fought and won”: climate change. 

The mayors have pledged that their cities will not just meet, but will exceed the EU’s ambitious climate-change targets, known in short as the “20/20/20” plan. The three-fold target would (1) cut the bloc’s total emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels, (2) derive 20 percent of energy from renewable sources, and (3) increase energy efficiency by 20 percent, all by the year 2020. 

More than 370 cities are joining a new pact called the “Covenant of Mayors,” pledging to meet the climate-change targets. Mayors from more than 100 cities converged in Brussels to formalize their commitments. 

Each local administration must come up with its own Sustainable Energy Action Plan within a year of signing the covenant, including an estimate of current emissions and how city structures will be adapted and resources allocated to reduce that level. Failure to implement any of the measures or submit regular follow-up reports can result in a city’s ejection from the covenant’s membership. 

The mayors showed considerably more gusto than their countries’ leaders had in December when they approved the EU-wide targets. 

“I strongly believe the Covenant of Mayors can be the driving force behind European climate-change policy,” said Budapest’s five-term mayor Gabor Demszky. 

“Cities, especially the larger cities in Europe, will be major agents in this fight against climate change,” agreed Madrid’s mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon. “Some skeptics have said this is not possible, but with this, we can show that it is.”

EU leaders hope the enthusiasm of this first wave of covenant mayors — 12 of whom run EU capitals — is contagious. To help that along, the covenant commits them to a certain amount of public-relations work on its behalf. The signs are promising. Just four of the 27 EU member states lack a city that has joined the covenant. Meanwhile, cities in the non-EU countries Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine have signed on. 

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg declined to join, but sent a video message to the gathering in support of its mission. He assured his fellow mayors that New York takes energy sustainability very seriously and acknowledged that the United States consumes 75 percent of the world’s energy and creates 80 percent of its emissions. New York, he said, is aiming for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. 

Many of the covenant cities have already implemented steps that support or go beyond 20/20/20. Demszky explained that Budapest, for example, enforces a “green zone” from October to April that bars cars without a climate-friendly certification to drive downtown. New buildings need to be certified for energy efficiency before they get final approval. Munich pledged in 2007 to try to reduce its CO2 emissions by 10 percent every five years. 

Those efforts at the community level will be significant. The Commission estimates that if the current covenant-member cities achieve a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions, it would equal the emissions reduction of taking 35 million cars off European roads or closing 20 coal-fired power plants. Those measures would result in an estimated 8 billion euros ($10.3 billion) in savings per year on energy imports. 

So it’s no wonder that, as mayors arrived in Brussels for the formal launch Tuesday, they were feted and praised by parliamentarians and commissioners alike. 

Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs told them their commitment “sends us a strong message of hope, particularly in the difficult times that we are facing.” Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that he had “always rather envied mayors for the directness of your mandate from citizens.”

But those citizens will want rewards for their ambition, rewards funded by Brussels. Even though it’s less than a week old, there is controversy over how to help the cities fund the covenant. Some 500 million euros of 3.5 billion left unspent in last year’s budget were initially earmarked for cities to support energy-efficiency measures. But in the end, that money was shifted to funding climate-change projects at the EU level. 

Some members of the European Parliament, from the Green and other parties, accused Barroso of “coming to meet the major city leaders empty-handed.” The MEPs pledged to create an “innovative financial instrument that could help finance committed cities' climate investments.”

But at Tuesday’s ceremony, Demszky was undaunted. “I am very optimistic about the accomplishment of the objectives of the Covenant of Mayors,” he said, “even if I know that the current regulatory environment and the coordination and financing of the programs aimed at bringing the energy-efficiency and emission-reduction initiatives to the local level leave much to be desired. Nevertheless, Budapest will make every effort to achieve the covenant’s objectives.”

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