We examined over 800 European cities’ plans to tackle climate change. Here’s what we found

Seen better days: a Norwegian glacier. Image: Getty.

Around the world, cities endeavour to cut greenhouse gas emissions, while adapting to the threats – and opportunities – presented by climate change. It’s no easy task, but the first step is to make a plan outlining how to meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, and help limit the world’s mean temperature rise to less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

About 74 per cent of Europe’s population lives in cities, and urban settlements account for 60-80 per cent of carbon emissions – so it makes sense to plan at an urban level. Working to meet carbon reduction targets can also reduce local pollution and increase energy efficiency – which benefits both businesses and residents.

But it’s just as important for cities to adapt to climate change – even if the human race were to cut emissions entirely, we would still be facing the extreme effects of climate change for decades to come, because of the increased carbon input that has already taken place since the industrial revolution.

In the most comprehensive survey to date, we collaborated with 30 researchers across Europe to investigate the availability and content of local climate plans for 885 European cities, across all 28 EU member states. The inventory provides a big-picture overview of where EU cities stand, in terms of mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Map of cities with local climate plans (LPCs). The countries in dark orange make it compulsory to have local climate plans. Image: author provided.

The leaderboard

The good news is that 66 per cent of EU cities have a mitigation or adaptation plan in place. The top countries were Poland – where 97 per cent of cities have mitigation plans – Germany (81%), Ireland (80 per cent), Finland (78 per cent) and Sweden (77 per cent). In Finland, 78 per cent of cities also had a plan for adapting to climate change.

But only a minority of EU countries – including Denmark, France, Slovakia and the UK – have made it compulsory for cities to develop local climate plans. In these countries, cities are nearly twice as likely to have a mitigation plan and five times as likely to have an adaptation plan. Throughout the rest of the EU, it is mainly large cities that have local climate plans.

There were some shortcomings worth noting: 33 per cent of EU cities (that’s 288 cities) have no standalone climate plans whatsoever – including Athens (Greece), Salzburg (Austria), and Palma de Mallorca (Spain). And not one city in Bulgaria or Hungary has a standalone climate plan. Only 16 per cent of cities – that’s a total of 144 – have joined-up mitigation and adaptation plans, and most of these were in France and the UK – though cities such as Brussels (Belgium), Helsinki (Finland) and Bonn (Germany) had joined-up plans as well.

Some cities have made climate initiatives a common feature in planning activities, often aiming for broader environmental goals, such as resilience and sustainability. Some of these forward-looking cities – Rotterdam and Gouda in the Netherlands, for example – may not have standalone climate change mitigation or adaptation plans, per se. Instead, climate issues are integrated into broader development strategies, as also seen in Norwich, Swansea, Plymouth and Doncaster in the UK.


Mitigation, adaptation – or both?

Plans for mitigating the effects of climate change are generally straightforward: they look at ways to increase efficiency, transition to clean energy and improve heating, insulation and transport. In doing so, they are likely to result in financial savings or health benefits for the municipality, and the public. For example, more low-emission vehicles on the road doesn’t just mean less carbon emissions – it also means better air quality for the city’s residents.

Adapting to climate change is not always so simple. Each area will need to adapt in different ways. Some adaptations – such as flood defences – can require huge investment to build, and only rarely prove their effectiveness. Yet there are plans and measures that cities can take, to both mitigate the threats from climate change and adapt to the changes that are already coming.

One way for cities to become more resilient to climate change is to integrate infrastructures for energy, transport, water and food, and allow them to combine their resources. A sensors become more commonplace across European cities, it’s easier to monitor the impacts of local plans to reduce emissions and stay on top of extreme weather. The University of Newcastle in the UK is home to the Urban Observatory, which provides one of the largest open-source digital urban sensing networks in the world.

Spot the sensor. Image: author provided.

Across the board, cities need to improve the way they manage water at the surface and below ground. Installing more green features in city centres or strategic locations can help urban areas adapt to heatwaves, extreme rainfall and droughts all at once. To find out what works and what doesn’t, it’s essential for cities to network and share knowledge, to create and improve on their local climate plans.

There is simply too much at stake for the world’s cities to go their separate ways when it comes to climate change. We have found that international climate networks make a big difference to countries and cities, as they develop and implement their climate plans. For instance, 333 EU cities of our sample are signatories of the Covenant of Mayors and through that are given support and encouragement as they engage in climate change planning and action.


Our study shows that cities are taking climate change threats seriously, but there is clearly more work to be done. It is a near certainty that if cities do not plan and act now to address climate change, they could find themselves in a far more precarious position in the future.

The ConversationWhile there is plenty that cities can do, national governments must still take the lead – providing legal and regulatory frameworks and guidance. Our study has demonstrated that this is one of the most effective ways to make sure that cities – and their citizens – are well prepared for the threats and opportunities that climate change will bring.

Oliver Heidrich, Senior Researcher in Urban Resource Modelling, Newcastle University and Diana Reckien, Associate Professor for Climate Change and Urban Inequalities, University of Twente.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”