Europe's on a mission: reaching 100 climate-neutral cities by 2030


Quote from Matthew Baldwin (DG MOVE) that reads: “Cities won’t get to carbon neutrality without embracing the digital, smart revolution. But we need to think beyond the conventional (but obviously important) sense of the word. For me, a smart city is also a city that tries to understand who is being left behind and why. ”

The European Commission’s Horizon Europe framework programme launched this year, and includes a new mechanism: “EU missions”. Each mission will entail a number of actions (including projects and policies) to meet specific commitments. Matthew Baldwin, Deputy Director-General at Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE), is the “mission manager” for the Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities Mission, which aims to reach 100 climate-neutral cities by 2030.

The CIVITAS Initiative connected with Mr. Baldwin to learn more about this mission, and its relationship to sustainable mobility and transport.

Please tell us more about the Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities Mission: what is this ‘mission’ all about?

It’s an exciting project! We are working now on the Implementation Plans, and hope that we will soon get the green light for launching the Mission. The Cities Mission (#MissionCities if you want to follow a bit on Twitter) is a completely new instrument of Horizon Europe, one of five proposed new Missions. (The other Missions relate to Climate Adaptation, Oceans and Waters, Soil and Food, and Cancer.) It builds on all the fantastic work that has been done so far in programmes like CIVITAS, and sets two new major objectives within our Horizon Europe policy – to help 100 cities become climate neutral by 2030, and to use these cities as “living labs” to prepare the ground for all cities to follow. It will be centred on research and innovation, for example with calls focused on urban areas. It will aim to work closely with existing programmes like CIVITAS, the Covenant of Mayors, and so on, to help deliver on our EU priorities such as the European Green Deal, the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, the Zero Pollution Action Plan, the Digital Europe and the New European Bauhaus.

In order to meet these ambitions, the Mission needs ultimately to go beyond research and innovation funding to trigger deployment, market uptake and policy actions. The implementation plan of the Cities Mission includes a wide range of planned actions that we hope will be well supported by MFF programmes.

How will it work in practice?

Cities that are ready to participate will have to respond to a Call for Expression of Interest to become climate-neutral by 2030 – we plan to launch this in the autumn, so now is the time to start getting ready!

Participating cities would receive assistance from the innovation-based Mission Platform to prepare a “Climate City Contract”, including an investment plan. The Mission Platform would inter alia develop Research & Innovation (R&I) pilots and demonstrators with participating cities, hence helping them to become “living labs” for other cities to follow.

When hearing the phrases ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘Climate-neutral Cities’, the first images that may come to mind are of complicated technology, and of renewable energy production, respectively – and not necessarily images of active mobility or integrated transport planning. Why should readers instead be sure to see transport and mobility as central to this mission? What roles do mobility and transport have in forging smart and climate-neutral cities?

The scientific evidence is clear on this: GHG emissions from the EU’s transport continued to actually increase in 2018 and 2019. Mobility is the only sector which is not following the EU’s general decreasing emissions trend. National projections compiled by the European Environment Agency (EEA) suggest that transport emissions in 2030 risk to remain above 1990 levels, even with measures currently planned in Member States. This is when – remember – we are looking this summer at a big package of EU measures aimed at reducing our climate emissions by 55% against 1990 levels by 2030.

So we need urgent action in mobility – including at the local level: this means an overhaul of how we envision transport and mobility for the years to come for both personal mobility and freight transport.   

We need action particularly in road transport, the highest contributor to transport emissions in urban environments. The projected trends suggest that the transport sector is unlikely to contribute to the emission reductions needed to achieve the EU’s new targets for 2030 or to achieving climate neutrality by 2050 without a step change in urban mobility policy.

The Commission isn’t going to tell climate neutral cities how to do get there, but it seems to me highly likely that local authorities looking to tackle climate change will want to see a rapid, big step change to modes such as zero-emission public transport, cycling and walking – as well as quickly reducing the dependence of their cities on the most polluting transport modes, such as the privately owned, conventionally fuelled car!

Actions here could include not only push and pull measures to shift towards public transport, cycling and walking, but also actions to ensure that the new transport supply is zero-emission and fuelled with renewable energy.

It’s not just about the Mission for Climate Neutral Cities either. We will also be coming forward with plans for a new urban mobility framework that will be adopted in the fourth quarter of 2021. Remember: we want to help all cities make progress on their sustainable urban mobility in the coming years, building on what CIVITAS has led so well, not just the cities committed to climate neutrality by 2030.   

The ideas we are looking at here would be to strengthen provisions for adoption of Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans, to try to ensure better data collection and digitalisation, and to look at ways of improving on the sustainable “first and last mile” both for passenger transport and freight. Again, cities seem highly likely to me in the coming years to take measures to increase public transport usage and connectivity, as well as promoting safe cycling, walking and general better allocation of mobility space in our cities.

At the same time, cities will be able to test and deploy state-of-the-art digital transport technologies or smart infrastructure: be it smart traffic management systems, sensors and cameras to measure all modes of traffic, AI predictive systems that enhance resilience, mobility management platforms or technologies to improve operations such as e-ticketing and dynamic or real-time traffic information.  

Key also for the greening mobility and improving air quality will be to support the deployment of zero-emission vehicles – be it through greening private/shared/public vehicle fleets through procurement measures and incentives (or disincentives).

It seems as though this Mission links well to the CIVITAS Thematic Area ‘Smart & connected mobility’. Mobility solutions that speak to this theme – and can be browsed here – help link new (smart) technologies to transport decarbonisation. This is a challenging venture though: a recent CIVITAS publication points out that strategies that rely on new technologies face unique challenges including having to plan for, procure, and create strategies for unfamiliar technologies.

Given these unique hurdles, it could be quite daunting for local and regional governments to take on ‘smart & connected’ solutions. Does the European Commission have advice or suggestions for authorities looking to make their mobility and transport systems smarter (with the goal of decarbonisation)? What kinds of support (e.g. funding, best practices, guidance documents, etc.) does the EU provide here this?

Indeed, there is a need to increase the capacity for local authorities to deal with data monitoring, collection and processing – for example. I understand those who say that existing EU programmes are mostly technology-driven and/or sectoral and are not focused on an overarching strategy aiming at climate neutrality for individual cities. The Mission will set a very clear and measurable target for cities – carbon neutrality – and will be “demand-based”, i.e., basing its activities on the actual needs of the cities in achieving these targets. It plans to offer strong cross-sectoral R&I actions, help with access to funding and financing and will systematically encourage governance structures that include innovative forms of engaging with citizens and local stakeholders.

Smart solutions can be expensive to procure and set-up, and sustainable mobility modes continue to not always be accessible for all (e.g. accessible to those with disabilities, safe for vulnerable groups, etc.). As our cities transform to be smarter, how can we ensure that ‘no one is left behind’? In other words, how can we be sure that this is a just transition, which does not make sustainable mobility prohibitively expensive or exclusive for the most vulnerable communities?

I think we should enlarge what we mean by “smart” here. I talk a lot to folks with lots of expertise in how to step up the digital and smart component to our mobility and indeed our life in cities. I agree with them. Cities won’t get to carbon neutrality without embracing the digital, smart revolution.

But we need to think beyond the conventional (but obviously important) sense of the word. For me, a smart city is also a city that tries to understand who is being left behind and why. Cities need to be inclusive, diverse and can really be leaders in the just transition. We want to avoid any sense that we are doing all this for the wealthy cosmopolitan elite in European city centres. For example, less than 50% of people right here in Brussels have access to a car, so pushing for strong public transport links, better and safer provision for active mobility, or simply places where children can play safely: these are not elitist concerns or policies. Transport – and in particular public transport – is intrinsic to the EU pillar of social rights in what concerns “access to essential services”. It serves commuters alike as low-income households, elderly, women and young people and it is a well-known fact that where public transport is widely accessible, there is increased road safety.

So I really am one of those who believes that a smart city is more than just digital, but based upon a safe, secure, modern and reliable public transport backbone.

Again, we are keen to ensure that there is strong citizen participation and involvement. What does that mean in practice? We won’t tell cities how to do it, but the cities involved in our Mission will have to actively engage in public participation and co-creation activities with local residents to ensure that people are at the heart of the solutions. And we need this citizen-led component right from the beginning, which means, if not a revolution, an evolution in local governance.

For more information on the Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities Mission, visit:…

Author: ICLEI Europe
European Mobility Week
Smart Cities Marketplace
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