Assessing the positive impacts of climate action, an approach which considers the broad spectrum of social, economic and health benefits, has increasingly gained global recognition. This is due, in part, to the insightful work done by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. On this platform, Christian Friis Bach from UNECE noted on February 2016: “Taking into account such co-benefits can radically change the picture and demonstrate that action can pay off, not only in the long term, but also in the short to medium term.” With the Paris Agreement recently ratified by the European Union (EU), what is the potential of the benefits approach for achieving these new commitments in Europe?
As attention now shifts to actions in each of the European states, and notably in cities, cooperation and actions on the local level, focusing on the co-benefits approach, will become all the more important. The example of German-Polish relations illustrates this opportunity very well. Here is why:
Fostering action and cooperation in cities can act as a bridge over troubled water. Take for instance the EU’s recent adoption of the Paris Agreement: although not unexpected, Poland’s demands considerably slowed down the pace of the EU’s fast-track ratification as a common group. The Polish special climate envoy, Pawel Salek, reminded only a few days ahead of the extraordinary meeting of the European ministers of environment on September 30 that a common ratification would “be possible if Poland can secure its national interests” – essentially, read as protecting its coal industry. Across the border, Germany did not wait for the joint ratification and went ahead on September 23, after both chambers of the parliament adopted the agreement text. Despite this gap in national climate policy, on the local level, priorities of municipalities and communities in Germany and Poland often converge to achieve – or maintain – economic prosperity, as well as ensuring a good quality of life for all, including efficient infrastructures and a clean environment. This is why focusing on solutions which foster local development can help sustain good working relations, build bridges, and lead to substantial climate action.
We need to escape insularity by promoting positive solutions to local challenges. In Poland, many cities and their inhabitants are afraid of the perspective of a structural change away from coal, especially its effects on employment and access to cheap energy. Unemployment, lower quality of life and energy poverty are issues which concern many Europeans, as the effects of the 2008 economic crisis are still felt in many regions and cities. In an era of growing fear and insularity which threatens European cohesion, there is a need to address expectations on the field.
We must broaden the scope of action. As the ambition level increases, we cannot afford to simply enter dialogue with those who are climate pioneers. Achieving the required transformation will only be possible if we demonstrate that climate actions can contribute to solving social, economic and health challenges that local populations face anyway. We must debunk the notion that there is an opposition between local development and climate protection.
Widespread use of cleaner fuels, efficient heating systems, as well as broader energy-related retrofits, combined with behavioural changes, can significantly increase competitiveness, improve outdoor and indoor air quality, address energy poverty, and create economic opportunities. Evidence shows that energy-related retrofits leads to the creation of jobs and revenues, notably in small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) from the local craft industry: large-scale building retrofit programs may have created over 100,000 jobs in Poland, whilst the programs of the German Bank for Reconstruction (KfW) funding energy-efficient construction and rehabilitation are estimated to have led to the creation of 341,000 jobs and 79,000 jobs respectively in 2013 – over 80% of which were created in SMEs. In a local dumpling factory located near a major Polish coal basin, low-carbon technologies led to a 40% reduction in energy consumption. The payback period is estimated to be around three to ten years, depending on investments, whilst the overall cost savings are estimated to be 50%. Further, the deployment of renewable energies can provide complementary sources of revenues to citizens and local companies. In Germany, 35% of the RES installations are owned by private households, over 10% by farmers and 14% by businesses.
This is only a fraction of the benefits that can be harnessed through low-emission solutions. How? Three possible courses of action:
(1) Multiply dialogues in cities to underscore the link between local challenges and potential low-emission solutions: It is important to develop a vision for and with local communities. Transformations do not unfold without tensions. To support this undertaking, the independent think-tanks adelphi, WiseEuropa and the Polish Institute for Sustainable Development prepared the discussion paper "Tapping into the co-benefits of low-emission economy in cities", which offers a basis for reflection in cities about the selected benefits based on evidence from Germany and Poland. Debates on the grassroots level, as well as within municipal administrations, will be paramount to identify local priorities, integrate potential resistance to change, and eventually unlock benefits. The German government is already supporting local dialogs in selected Polish cities through cooperation projects (see here and here,Polish only). This can be further scaled up – in terms of variety of actors reached, depth and geographical scope – e.g. using the Climate and Energy Fund of the German Federal Foreign Office for such outreach activities and drawing on the cross-actor, cross-sectoral convening power of diplomatic networks.
(2) Empower local leaders that have recognized the link between local challenges and low-emission solutions: There is evidence that local communities are already taking action for a clean, sustainable future, including in coal-reliant countries such as Poland – see for instance the success of social movements of Polish Smog Alert or More than Energy campaign. There is space and potential for scaling this momentum. Bilateral cooperation can support local leaders in evaluating and documenting the respective success factors of good practice examples: providing insights from behind the scenes is key for a successful replication. This may also include fostering the development of tools – ideally with local decision-makers and/or citizens themselves – that will enable them to visualize the potential gains of low-emission measures: there is still a gap to be filled in order to move from mobilization to scaled-up actions.
(3) Support tangible city-to-city cooperation that reaches beyond climate pioneers: Some cooperation initiatives target model megacities (such as the C40 Group), others have a broader scope, yet focus on the development of action plans (e.g. the Covenant of Mayors, now Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy). A complementary lever is the joint or parallel development of tangible projects under the umbrella of bilateral cooperation. The demonstration effect of these projects can give municipalities that are not yet climate champions a new impetus to advance climate issues on the local agenda. At the same time, this kind of cooperation helps build capacity within the municipal administration and local communities. In the best case scenario, the bilateral approach helps access funds and/or helps make better use of available funds through the mutual inspiration and a more in-depth exchange of knowledge and know-how. For instance, eight Polish and German cities embarked on such low-emission partnerships. The profile and degree of ambitions of these cities varies greatly. However, they all see an opportunity to scale up actions on the ground, notably in the area of energy-related refurbishments, sustainable urban design and renewable energies, and to mobilize actors that would not necessarily be inclined to join climate initiatives. National governments can play a role in financing programs that support this joint, bilateral implementation on the ground, bringing climate action and local development together.
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