Europe's cities take the lead on cutting emissions

Outpacing global efforts, they've set targets even more ambitious than those on the table at this week's climate talks in Bali.

With solar-powered streetlights and energy-efficient power generators, this town 25 miles southwest of London is at the vanguard of a promising movement accelerating emissions-cutting programs.

From the metropolises of London and Stockholm to hamlets like Güssing in Austria, communities are showing that you don't necessarily need international treaties or global rules to force climate change action.

"Our aim is for the cities to push the governments to act on climate change," says Pedro Ballesteros Torres, manager of the European Commission's Sustainable Energy Europe campaign. "If we want to tackle climate change we have to be local."

Woking officials indeed see the town of 100,000 as a shining example of the power of alternative energy.

"We have cut emissions by 21 percent since 1990," says Lara Curran, who heads the climate change program for the local council. If the national grid were to go down, locals here boast, the town would remain lit up. "Woking is a small town but this shows we can make a difference," says Curran.

Governments struggling to meet even the 5 percent set by the 1997 Kyoto agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, may well need some pushing from local initiatives. As more than 180 nations meet to draft a post-Kyoto treaty in Bali this week, the signs are not encouraging.

Many scientists and United Nations officials believe industrial nations must cut emissions by as much as 80 percent by 2050 to stop the world from overheating. But recent figures from UN, European Union, and academic sources show:

• Of the EU's core 15 nations, only Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden are on course to meet their Kyoto commitments.

• Global carbon dioxide emissions have risen by an average 2.9 percent each year since 2000 – up from 0.7 percent in the 1990s.

• US emissions rose 16.3 percent between 1990 and 2005.

• China's CO2 emissions have eclipsed those of the US, with 6.2 billion tons in 2006 compared with 5.8 billion in the US.

One Swedish town thinks it has some answers. Växjö, a city of 78,000, decided just over 10 years ago to become Europe's first fossil-fuel free city.

It's not there yet. But it has cut emissions by 30 percent and is confident it can achieve a 50 percent reduction by 2010. The main agent of change has been a centralized heating system which runs on low-emitting wood-chip fuel.

"It provides district heating to almost all houses," says environmental controller Henrik Johansson. "We are taking the leftover product from forestry industry and the sawmills and we use that ... for heat and electricity production."

Växjö has also expanded its bicycle network (paths are cleared of snow before roads) and provides free parking for green cars. It is insulating older buildings and now boasts that 50 percent of its energy supply comes from renewable sources.

Now, says Johansson, visitors come from all over the world (in particular from China and the US) to see what can be done on a local level.

"We send them the message that you don't have to wait for international agreements because you can do a lot on voluntary local basis," he says.

Other small communities have found the same. The Austrian town of Güssing has cut carbon emissions by more than 90 percent over the past 15 years, principally through renewable energy projects. Apeldoorn in the Netherlands wants 100 percent of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. The Danish island of Samsø is powered almost entirely by the sun and the wind.

Cities, too, are working with renewables. Sunny Barcelona requires all new buildings to install solar panels for hot water. Alessandria has built Italy's largest photovoltaic district, which it aims to make fossil-fuel free.

Munich, Germany, has its own renewable projects, but is focused on improving energy efficiency.

"The most important action and project will be to engage in insulation," says Gerhard Urbainczyk, of the city's health and environment department. "The largest possibility for cutting carbon dioxide emissions lies in the refurbishment of existing buildings."

The city, which has cut emissions by about 5 percent since 2000, has lofty aims to shrink its footprint by 50 percent by 2030. That compares with Copenhagen (35 percent by 2010) and London (60 percent by 2025).

But according to Mr. Torres, not enough cities are setting irrevocable targets. He says that there are plenty of good initiatives but not enough binding commitments.

He wants to formalize the city efforts into a "covenant" that would impose targets. He hopes that as many as 100 communities will sign up by the end of 2008. "We need a system that makes its formal and binding," he says.

To make deeper cuts, towns and cities will have ultimately to get to grips with the fastest growing – and hardest-to-tackle – sources of emissions: transport. Even in Växjö, Johansson says that it's difficult to make local initiatives on something that depends largely on national strategy. If there's no train service, or gas stations with biofuel pumps, communities' hands are tied.

Here, cities may be best placed. Paris's new 'Velib' bicycle rental program builds on similar initiatives in Copenhagen, Vienna, and Brussels; London has its congestion charge that has cut weekday traffic through the city center. Stockholm followed suit in August this year.

"Traffic is the big problem for the future," says Angela Harnish of the Climate Alliance of European Cities, a grouping of more than 1,400 member cities and municipalities across Europe which aim to cut their emissions by 10 percent every five years. "For energy and heating we have solutions, but for traffic and mobility it's harder."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.