How are Europe’s cities adapting to climate change and moving to a sustainable future?

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Article Published 17 Mar 2021 Last modified 04 Jun 2021
5 min read
Adapting to the impacts of climate change is a top priority in the European Union. What is driving cities to implement important measures to mitigate these impacts and make urban centres more resilient and sustainable? We sat down with Ivone Pereira Martins, EEA expert in urban sustainability on what the Agency is doing to help this vital work.

What are the European Union and the EEA doing in climate change adaptation, and especially in urban sustainability?

The new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change, recently adopted by the European Commission, proposes actions that enhance knowledge on adaptation, so that we can gather more and better data on climate-related risks and losses. This relates directly to ClimateADAPT, the European platform for adaptation knowledge, hosted and developed by the EEA.

ClimateADAPT includes a number of best practices from cities that have been dealing with adaptation measures. What is new is the full recognition in the EU strategy that adaptation requires plans and actions at all levels of governance. It highlights priorities recognizing local adaptation action, the use of nature-based solutions for adaptation and integrating adaptation concerns in macro-fiscal policy. The way cities operate has been fully recognised in our report “Urban sustainability in Europe – What is driving cities’ environmental change”, which will be published in the coming weeks. Together with the report, we will release a short briefing which gives an initial overview of key impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on sustainability efforts in cities.

What are the key takeaways from this new report?

The EEA has been working on urban topics for a long time. This has been done with a thematic approach, meaning the evolution of patterns like urbanisation and pollution or urban air quality, noise pollution and climate change adaptation in cities. The new report is a first in a series of assessments that addresses the urban contribution to environmental targets in an integrated way. This particular report addresses cities directly – via a survey and interviews – to understand what is driving urban environmental change as a component of urban transitions to a more sustainable society. It is an exploratory piece of work that constitutes a benchmark on how cities evaluate key drivers of and barriers to urban sustainability transitions.

Looking across all of the enabling factors identified in this research, certain factors stand out. We discovered that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach. Both drivers and barriers were identified within seven key areas: context; governance; knowledge; culture; technology; data and information; and finance. It is important to note that this is the first time that the EEA addresses cities directly in this exploratory way through a design-thinking exercise that can be followed up.

What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cities?

The full impact of COVID-19 on urban sustainability is still being assessed. The pandemic has changed our lifestyles, with increased use of digital devices and in increased working from home. This has altered urban landscapes and will have a lasting impact on transport and daily commutes. Similarly, the demand for housing and office use will likely change. This can lead to better air quality and less noise due to less traffic.

A lot will depend on how European countries set out their recovery and resilience plans, and more importantly how they see cities as players. Cities have played a major role in supporting their citizens during the pandemic and local governments have an important role to play in our recovery and in implementing the European Green Deal. The upcoming EEA briefing analyses some of the first impacts of the pandemic on the environment and climate change. Here we refer to mobility and accessibility, the renovation wave and retrofitting of buildings, the importance of green spaces, nature-based solutions and the role of local, urban-sourced food.

Do these assessments provide technical and practical advice or sustainability pathways for Europe’s many cities and towns?

Our work at the EEA targets a wide constituency. We work with countries, European institutions and organisations and European civil society at large. While the EEA’s mandate does not include working directly with cities, around 75 % of the European population lives in cities or towns. Our upcoming assessments have a double objective: to address the importance of the local level and the importance of cities in achieving the very ambitious environmental and climate targets Europe has set.

Our work also demonstrates that cities are highly engaged on the implementation side and sometimes are even more ambitious than on the national level. During the last Monitoring and Reporting Refit of environmental legislation (2018), it was concluded that 70 % of the EU’s environmental legislation is implemented at the local level.

What have been the main lessons of your preliminary research so far?

The report provides very interesting insights from the cities surveyed in the study, which have direct implications for EU policies. One of the key takeaways is that EU laws and policy frameworks are seen as having a key role on accelerating sustainable change in cities. Furthermore, access to EU, national and private funding plays a critical role. City networks and focused partnerships are also very important to add value to cities’ efforts towards sustainability. At the same time, cities are heterogenous and transitions to sustainability need to be tailored to local contexts. Visions and strategic plans on sustainability from the local level are vital as foundations for future action.

What other work is in the pipeline in this area?

We have four strands of work going on. One is the continuation of the work done across the EEA. These include ongoing work on adaptation, air quality and noise pollution assessments in an urban context, work involving Copernicus and its Urban Atlas local component, nature-based solutions, mobility/accessibility, and building retrofitting or circular solutions. An extract of this work will be presented in a forthcoming report on what we call the Nexus Analysis based on a top-down analytical perspective. The analysis focuses on eight urban and environment sustainability issues selected as priorities by a stakeholder-led process. We will focus on climate resilience, quality of life, accessibility, healthy environment, food security, circularity, clean energy and sustainable buildings – at urban level.

We also want to reinforce the connection to relevant stakeholders. We plan to step up networking on this topic via the creation of a collaborative Urban Sustainability Forum, allowing for exchange of information, networking and targeted partnerships. Finally, , taking into account other EU-led initiatives, the EEA is also considering how all this knowledge and expertise can be conveyed and shared more extensively.

Ivone Pereira Martins
Urban Sustainability Expert


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