If the emissions from fossil fuels continue unabated as they do now, the consequences will be predominantly negative for humanity, especially for young people. Coastal cities become uninhabitable; shifts in climate zones lead to extinction of species and the disappearance of ecosystems; subtropics and tropics will become dangerously hot, resulting in emigration chaos and a threat to global governance.
The transition to a sustainable future is therefore necessary, and it may be ambitious. Serge de Gheldere from FutureproofedCities and Thomas Osdoba from Climate KIC explain how local governments can achieve this.
📉 Cut CO2 emissions in half every 10 years
To guarantee a safe future and ensure our prosperity, we must halve CO2 emissions every 10 years by quickly and completely moving away from fossil fuels. At the same time, by 2050 we have to extract an additional five gigatons of CO2 per year from the atmosphere through massive reforestation and improved agriculture.
This amounts to a CO2 reduction of 7% per year. In comparison, in Flanders we have reduced a total of less than 1% in the last 11 years. Historically, there have never been transformations on this scale and at that speed without a strong, driving role from the government.
But while national governments are stalling and not making decisions, local authorities take the lead. For example, 8 out of 10 Flemish municipalities signed the Covenant of Mayors to reduce their emissions by 20% by 2020. But signing such a covenant is the easy part. Are municipalities really making it possible to insulate houses and keep cars off?
Implementing climate action proves to be very difficult in practice. The appointed environmental or sustainability officer is often alone, there is little budget and time available and many cities, provinces and regions work next to each other instead of together. The necessary knowledge to take action is often fragmented in complex reports, government papers and scientific sites.
To successfully direct this energy transition, municipalities must put forward an attractive "zero carbon" vision. They must focus on measures that save a lot of CO2 and money and that organize them across departments and municipal boundaries. Like infrastructure works, they can then finance and implement them on a large scale, in order to fully relieve their citizens.
🖥 Digital tool for focus and collaboration
In their search for that focus and cooperation, one in five Flemish municipalities now uses a digital tool that makes climate action manageable. One place to follow up on everything that happens around climate in the city.
Measures and actions can easily be added through a list of more than 60 standardized, calculated proposals. In this way, municipalities have relevant numbers that allows them to get started immediately. They can see the gain in tons of CO2 and the financial return per measure and for the entire climate plan. This way a city can see where it can really make a difference.
Fellow officials and local administrators can monitor the progress of their city and divide tasks and responsibilities among themselves. In addition, cities and municipalities are given the opportunity to copy successful measures from each other. Through an umbrella account, provinces and intermunicipal companies can follow up, support their cities and municipalities and ‘push’ important measures and actions to them.
💰 Scale and financing just like infrastructure works
It is actually too late to ask people in a friendly way: “Would you please buy green electricity and insulate your house?” If the city or the Region redesigns a road, they don't first come and ask: “Is this not too unpleasant for you?” They free up budget and start their roadworks, and afterwards the cycle path is safer and the internet faster. We need the same ‘infrastructure’ approach to realize the transition to a fossil-free economy on time.
One of the most priority measures in the climate plans is the energy renovation of existing homes. The energy renovation rate of the Belgian building heritage is currently 0.3% per year and must increase tenfold in the very short term.
People like Thomas Osdoba from Climate KIC, propose a number of crucial ingredients to successfully scale up energy renovations:
- Bundling of measures - By bundling ‘more expensive’ measures with more profitable, a total energy renovation can still yield a good financial return. For example, it may be more cost-effective to immediately take the step to thorough energy renovation at the NZEB (Nearly Zero Energy Building) level than to carry out small, successive interventions.
- Bundling projects - By bundling energy renovation projects per district, the renovation costs per project can decrease. By bundling ‘more expensive’ projects with more profitable, an attractive financial return can also be achieved for the combined projects.
- Cheap capital with a long term - By combining projects, the need for capital is also much greater. This makes it possible to turn to other sources of financing such as the European Investment Bank, bonds or private funds (such as the 600M fund set up by the Utrecht Economic Board for making apartments more sustainable). This makes it possible to look for the required capital - tens to hundreds of millions per year, per municipality - with a long duration (25 to 30 years) and at a low interest rate (3-4%). If this interest rate is lower than the financial return of the bundled projects (up to 6 to 7%), energy renovations on a large scale can also become slightly profitable for a municipality.
- Budget neutral for residents / owners - The advantage of such third party financing is also that residents / owners do not have to use their savings to join the energy renovations and that everyone has access to it. The repayment is done through the saving on the energy bill. The housing costs (remaining energy invoice + loan repayment) is therefore no more than ‘normal’. Money that the residents already spend every month on the purchase of (fossil) energy goes to the repayment of the loan.
- Opt-out of carbon tax — The decision to join such a process of integral sustainability isn't a small one. There must of course be sufficient support among the owner-inhabitants. You can get in now, or later, but it will have to happen eventually, just like with road repair or sewerage. We can propose an opt-out scheme for citizens: a contribution of, for example, € 100 per year for each home, which allows them to enter the large-scale energy renovations free of charge (This amount can then serve as the downpayment of the municipality, which will enable the financing application). Citizens who choose not to participate (and therefore continue to emit more CO2) still pay, but so to speak for a kind of CO2 compensation.
🌇 Cities and municipalities as directors of the energy transition
Municipalities and cities can play a crucial role in this energy transition. They can do this by first working smartly with their teams and peers on a climate plan that makes a real difference. In addition, by realizing climate construction sites from their core competencies, just as they are now doing for infrastructure projects - new neighborhoods, roads or sewerage. This way, cities and municipalities can create the circumstances in which it is appropriate to invest in those large construction sites.
As Brent Toderian says: “The truth about a city’s aspiration isn’t found in its vision, it’s found in its budget.” If we succeed in this, we'll build a future in which tens of thousands of local jobs are added that cannot be outsourced. In which citizens experience more prosperity, comfort and quality of life. And where cities become more livable, resilient and attractive.
We think we can, we know we have to.
Serge de Gheldere (ceo Futureproofed, chairman Klimaatzaak) and Tom Osdoba (Climate-KIC)
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