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COVID-19 recovery and climate action: In interview with Energy Cities

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the vulnerabilities in our society. As decision-makers worldwide decide exactly which changes to implement, we spoke to REN21 member Alix Bolle of Energy Cities, to ask what climate actions are needed in the EU in the wake of COVID-19.

COVID-19 has shed light on where our economic systems fall short; from the fragility of international supply chains, to the economic, environmental and health risks we suffer because of our dependence on fossil fuels.

Although currently working from home, Energy Cities continue to drive the energy transition. This is Alix Bolle of Energy Cities in her home office.

But, the crisis also offers us an unprecedented opportunity for societal and economic change. This change is something those of us in the renewable energy and climate sector have been pushing for. The difference now is that it’s making headlines.

We drew on the expertise of the REN21 community to find out what governments should be doing.

What are three things we should do to offset climate change?

Alix Bolle: First, we need to completely reframe our economic policy to align it with the climate emergency. This means favoring energy sufficiency and short supply chains. In practice, governments at all levels should assess the color (from light green to dark brown) of every Euro they spend. Local authorities have already started the exercise. For example, the Mayor of the City of Oslo famously said that he counts CO2 emissions the same way he counts money.

But, before looking at greening supply chains or investing in technology, our economic systems should prioritise optimisation, and energy and resource saving. We can do this through improved territorial planning and demand management, using the principle of energy sufficiency.

Cities with 100% renewbale energy targest as of mid-2019, from the REN21 ‘Renewables in Cities 2019 Global Status Report’.

Second, we need to understand that offsetting climate change cannot be done top-down. We cannot just impose unilateral choices from above. It is crucial to establish dialogue platforms and local alliances that involve all levels and sectors of society. Recent social movements, including the yellow vests in France and the global Youth for climate strikes, have shown that citizens want to have a say in how the climate crisis is managed.

Plus, if we consider the massive scale of investments that we will need to reach climate neutrality by 2050, we must also mobilise private savings on top of corporate and government pledges. Third, we need to continue to cooperate and share experience across borders. Although there is a clear need to go “more local”, we also need more.

More European and more international cooperation. We can no longer afford to have isolated success stories emerging from front-runner cities. We urgently need to replicate massively those actions that have been tried and tested elsewhere.

What does the COVID-19 crisis mean for climate change action?

Alix: Obviously there is a risk that [focus on COVID] could slow climate action down… But there is a growing awareness that we cannot just turn the old system back on.

Importantly, there is a need to collectively redefine what resilience means. We must develop local initiatives that enable us to better absorb external shocks. There are plenty of examples from European cities that have been doing just this over the past few decades. The energy sector is no exception, and the opportunity to mainstream citizen energy communities… is very promising.

What climate actions would you like to see adopted in the next year, and by whom?

Alix: We would like the EU to commit to a genuine reform of its economic governance framework within the proposed climate law and as part of the EU semester process. This means climate-proofing its entire budget to measure the CO2 and resource intensity of each investment and expenditure. Plus, encouraging its Member States to apply the same process to their own fiscal and economic processes. Another game-changer would be to fully embed the notion of energy and resource sufficiency in the EU energy and climate policies.

Ruud Kempener, European Commission, DG Energy, during REN21 Academy (2018)

Finally, but importantly, EU Member States need to effectively create robust dialogue platforms.  This is required within the EU Energy Union regulation and ensures that local authorities and civil society members are closely involved in shaping their long-term climate and energy scenarios. In parallel, we strongly hope that the EU’s proposal for a climate pact will lead to the opening of a new chapter of the Covenant of Mayors initiative. Here, cities will be encouraged and supported to create local alliances of stakeholders around climate and energy action.

What are the big changes in climate action that you have seen, or participated in?

Alix: From Energy Cities side, our biggest achievement has been our contribution to the reinforcement of the EU Covenant of Mayors initiative. The initiative gathers some 1,000 local authorities that are all committed to taking every-day voluntary climate and energy actions. These actions strengthen their resilience and support the wellbeing of their citizens.

Fridays for Future protest

More recently, we have proudly supported efforts of the EU Community Power Coalition to guarantee a robust European framework to develop citizen energy communities across the Member States.

The greatest climate action I have personally seen is undeniably the Fridays for Future movement, and the impact it has had on EU policy making. The EU Executive recently admitted that this youth climate movement spurred the plan for a European Green Deal. It goes to show how far-reaching their impact has been.

Energy Cities have addressed an open letter to President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, describing how Europe can emerge stronger out of the current crisis.

This interview was conducted for Earth Day 2020. Find out what our other members say about climate actions post-COVID-19. Read more about the role of cities in the energy transition in the REN21 Renewables In Cities Global Status Report


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