The European City in The Climate Transition
The Green Deal is undoubtedly the most ambitious European policy project of the last thirty years. But, as the European Union is primarily a normative power and does not possess significant means of enforcement or budgetary tools, this extensive plan can only be turned into reality if it is fully integrated into other levels of power and embraced by populations. 1 From this point of view, towns and communities have a fundamental role to play which deserves to be better recognized and supported. This is, first of all, because they are directly impacted by natural changes and the evolution of carbon-based economies and societies that result from climate disruption, and are therefore at the forefront of thinking about and implementing the necessary adaptation policies necessary to prevent or mitigate these phenomena (I). They are also among the first levers, even the first lever, of public investment which is indispensable for reaching carbon neutrality within one generation (II). Finally, despite their shortcomings, these towns and communities remain the forms of democratic organization most widely supported by citizens and the ones with the highest potential for democratic innovation (III).
Cities at the forefront of the transition
During the summer of 2021, Belgium and Germany were affected by violent flooding which caused dozens of deaths as well as extensive natural and material damage. The region of Wallonia, with 40 dead, hundreds of injured, and thousands of climate refugees forced from their places of home and work, bore the brunt of this natural disaster. Huge amounts of human and financial resources were deployed by local and regional authorities to house and compensate thousands of families, clear thousands of tons of debris, and rebuild destroyed towns and buildings. But despite sympathetic visits from the prime minister and the president of the Commission, no real help came from the federal government or the European Union. 2 This inaction reveals much about Europe’s lack of preparedness for the well-known challenges of climate change. If, as IPCC experts warn, episodes of heavy rain, drought, and tornados are expected to increase in the coming years, Europe, which aspires to be a pioneer in the fight against global warming, cannot remain powerless.
Not every future natural disaster will be as violent as those experienced by the communities of Eastern Wallonia during that deadly summer of 2021, but they will nevertheless have major impacts which will force local authorities to dedicate ever greater resources to protecting people and territories against the devastation caused by climate change. When heatwaves threaten the health and lives of the most vulnerable citizens, including school children, individuals living in nursing homes, and hospital patients; when drought affects harvests; when floods and heavy rains make housing and public buildings inhabitable, it is local public authorities and their personnel who are on the front line. When epidemics proliferate as a result of deforestation and urbanization, it is also local public authorities who are called on to organize vaccination centers, distribute masks, apply and enforce social distancing measures, check on isolated individuals, inform the population… and bury the dead.
This increase in local responsibilities is all the more brutal as many of these cities must, at the same time, deal with transitioning to carbon-free economies and societies. One way favored by the European Union to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions consisted of encouraging — either directly or indirectly — the relocation of the most polluting forms of industrial production to other parts of the world. An ultra-liberal trade policy, which was long devoid of social and environmental norms, combined with the establishment of a free market for carbon credits, contributed to the accelerated destruction of European industry to the benefit of other regions of the world, especially China. Tens of thousands of jobs were destroyed, particularly in the European “fossil crescent” 3 which stretches from Northern England to Silesia, passing through the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Wallonia, and Ruhr regions. In the process, thousands of hectares of productive land have been transformed into industrial wastelands whose clean-up and redevelopment costs have been left — in accordance with the good old rule of privatizing profits and socializing costs — to the responsibility of public authorities.
This natural and human disaster, which struck what was once the capital of the global industrial revolution — and the cradle of European construction — is a taste of what awaits many other regions if the transition to a decarbonized society and economy is left to the discretion of the free market. That these regions are also the ones experiencing the highest levels of political decay is in no way surprising. 4 In societies that have been built around industry, the destruction of industrial structures leads to the breakdown of societal structures themselves. The labor movement, in both its union and political dimensions, is the first victim, and the political entrepreneurs of the extreme right have understood how much they can benefit in these desolate regions from rhetoric that combines the rejection of foreigners, globalization, and European integration. 5 They play on the fears that the climate transition creates to tighten their grip. The cradle of our prosperity and our political integration, the fossil crescent could indeed become, if we leave it to its sad fate, the home of a “fossil fascism” 6 which will further erode the social and civic capital of these regions.
Cities as a lever for carbon neutrality
The only good news in this bleak assessment is that, if given the means, towns and communities can become the best antidote to these risks of decay. Local public powers in both urban and rural areas have been pioneers in developing the collective services that structured the new societies at the beginning of the Anthropocene. The construction of sewer systems and the supplying of drinking water, urban lighting, the production and distribution of gas and electricity, the construction of collective housing, the development of public transportation — in short, all the material infrastructure essential to life in a modern society — was essentially the task of municipalities and associations in Europe at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. Likewise, the rollout of collective services enabling the renewal of social life and the blossoming of human faculties, from social assistance to health, from schools to theaters and libraries, including parks and gardens, day-care centers and nursing homes, was carried out by local authorities long before it became the focus of national public policies.
Given their history, it is not surprising to see cities and communities once again reviving the pioneering spirit of the early days of the Anthropocene and taking the lead in making the necessary investments for the transition to a carbon-neutral society.
Towns and villages manage many public buildings (schools, cultural and sports centers, administrative offices, fire and police stations, community centers, hospitals and nursing homes…), all of which must drastically reduce their consumption of energy and raw materials;
Municipalities have regulatory powers over land use planning and housing policy and are also responsible for the design and maintenance of public spaces;
They also have responsibility for certain aspects of mobility and logistics — the last few kilometers, which are often the most crucial — and directly or indirectly manage public transport;
The majority of towns and villages are responsible for the collection and management of waste, which is a critical aspect of the circular economy, and many of them manage wastewater treatment either directly or indirectly as well as business parks, both of which they can encourage in their transition to a circular economy approach and the promotion of biodiversity;
Their land holdings include vast natural areas, woods and forests, fields and pastures, parks and vacant urban lots. These areas are under direct strain from climate change, but they also have an essential role to play in carbon sequestration, as well as being a refuge for biodiversity and for human educational and recreational activities;
These natural spaces are also often spaces where food is produced, with urban centers being the main potential beneficiaries. Local authorities can play a central role in relocating food production and processing by encouraging orders from the public sector (schools, hospitals, nursing homes, agencies, etc.), and by supporting the development of collective tools such as distribution centers, logistics hubs and processing facilities (mills, vegetable factories, presses, etc.);
Taken together, these levers would allow local authorities to design large-scale projects for transitioning to carbon-free spaces. A number of them have already initiated this movement and share their best practices within the network of cities in transition. 7
However, this ambition comes up against major structural obstacles, which are largely the responsibility of the European Union, and should be removed within the framework of a Green Deal that is extended to local actors. Valuing the skills and expertise of towns and villages is indispensable for accelerating the transition and ensuring that it is devised and implemented in ways that are adapted to local realities, but all these efforts will be in vain if they continue to come up against the counter-forces inherent to the current European model of production and consumption.
- Local transport policies come up against the high cost of trains and trams compared to travel by car or plane.
- Initiatives to relocate food production run into the productivist agriculture model and the unfettered free trade that subjects producers to unfair competition.
- European budgetary discipline limits local authorities’ investment capacity.
- Repair and recycling projects for electrical and electronic equipment are overwhelmed by a market dominated by over-consumption and programmed obsolescence.
In short, local initiatives — just as the “small gestures” made by citizens who get actively involved in reducing their emissions — seem like the courageous but infinitely unequal battle of the Davids of the transition against the Goliaths of the extractivist and productivist model. The Green Deal can only be up to these challenges and clearly involve local and regional entities in the transition if all European Union policies are in line with the Paris Agreement’s objectives. But we are quite far from this; essential public policies such as the common agriculture policy, mobility and transport, competition and trade, are still shaped by the ideologies of the old world. As for the normative and regulatory agendas concerning vehicles, equipment, heating and ventilation systems, chemical products, planned obsolescence… they fall far short of the ambitions set out by the European Union itself. A Green Deal expanded to local authorities should begin by examining the structural obstacles they face and reorient Union policy based on this assessment.
The Union must also recognize that the transition will not be a long, calm river. Such a profound energy and technological revolution will inevitably lead to the decline of entire sectors of our economies, resulting in the devaluing of workers and vast territories as well as massive job loss. All this can be anticipated and corrected, and the European Union does not lack the experience or the levers to design and deploy such ecological and social planning. The European Coal and Steel Community, the Common Agricultural Policy, the Cohesion Fund, and the European Social Fund are examples of public mechanisms designed to anticipate and accompany the transformation of key European economic and social sectors. It is therefore not a matter of reinventing the wheel, but of conducting a critical assessment of these practices in order to reshape and expand them from the perspective of the transition. If the Union hopes to be up to the challenge, it must make these programs more coherent, drastically increase their budgets, and develop the range of interventions by creating a true European Job Guarantee Programme, and by designing transition plans in conjunction with social partners in all sectors of the carbon economy that will be directly affected by the transition — from fossil fuels to automobiles, including road, sea and air transport.
It is also essential to overhaul the tools intended to support the territories most affected by the transition. The European Social Fund, the Cohesion Fund, the Globalisation Adjustment Fund, the LIFE programs, etc. have developed an understanding of these territories and public expertise that are useful resources, but which must be greatly expanded. All the statistical data needed to identify the places that will be the “losers” in the transition — because they will suffer the natural, economic and social consequences — is available. As for existing tools, they can be coordinated and expanded within the framework of local transition contracts to provide these territories with the financial, logistical, and technological support they so urgently need. Of course, all of this will cost money, but the European Union has a large borrowing capacity, only slightly diminished by the Recovery and Resilience Facility, and it can tax carbon at its borders, better tax the profits of multinationals, and tax large estates.
Cities as laboratories of democratic innovation
While the high places of the Anthropocene have become places of civic withdrawal and social decay, exploited by far right wing political groups, they are also very often areas that pioneer social and democratic innovation. It is in the regions most directly affected by the deindustrialization of recent decades that support, training, and integration measures for workers who have lost their jobs have been developed. This is where union practices have been the most creative, going beyond the corporatist defense of workers in powerful sectors to contribute to defining industrial and training policies. It is also where the third sector of the social and solidarity economy has developed, revitalizing the democratic, social, and environmental ideals of the cooperative movement. It is also where local democratic innovations aimed at involving citizens in redefining their living spaces have been experimented with most extensively.
This social capital, patiently built to resist the ravages of deindustrialization and urban decline, renews the ambitions for strong democracy that were born in the bosom of communities at the beginning of the Anthropocene; in other words, before the nationalization of political life. This is fertile ground for inventing the transition’s deliberation and decision-making mechanisms. Ecological and social planning must naturally give the European level an essential role: this is the level of power at which the normative and regulatory agenda governing production must be established, from energy, social, and health standards to rules against planned obsolescence.
It is also at the European level that social and environmental standards for trade, rules governing public procurement, and tax standards must be decided. But these broad principles will only be widely accepted if they are then adapted to local realities. As for public investments, whether they involve the insulation of buildings and housing, mobility, land use planning, the protection and restoration of biodiversity or food production, it is — by definition — at the local level that they will be translated into action. It is therefore urgent that we reinvent a European social contract whereby the Union and its territories establish partnerships that allow general guidelines to be adapted to local conditions.
European initiatives for restoring biodiversity, social cohesion, training, or industrial transition already have experimented extensively with these collaborative and contractual practices. At this stage, however, they remain largely limited to a dialogue between European, regional, and local civil servants, which sometimes include a few “stakeholders”. Civic participation is largely absent from these mechanisms, despite the fact that a local scale is ideally suited for their development. If we want to make the Green Deal a lever for transition that is accepted and supported by a social majority, we need to set up “transition contracts” that involve the vital forces of civil servants, citizens, and local and European elected representatives.
Local committees, made up of elected municipal officials, citizen volunteers, as well as of representatives of associations and social actors, could begin by assessing the suffering and resources of the various territories through a broad participatory process — following the example of the proposals outlined by Bruno Latour in his book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime?, which are currently being tested in several French towns. 8 From this assessment, action plans would then be drawn up to mobilize —in the local context — European policy resources in the areas of industrial and agricultural transition, biodiversity, flood and heatwave prevention, or training and employment. These action plans would also be developed through structured dialogue between local elected officials and civil society representatives and would be subject to an annual, participatory evaluation to review the causes of failures and delays and identify ways to remedy them. At the same time, transnational assemblies, which would bring together local actors with national and European elected officials, would regularly analyze local practices in order to identify “best practices” and share them as widely as possible. Such mechanisms are already emerging in many territories.
They anticipate the reordering of deliberation and decision-making processes by connecting different levels of power and different categories of actors, which are the crucial complement to a Green Deal that, should it remain the exclusive domain of technocrats and organized interests, will be unable to take root in the real world.
- See Laurence Tubiana, Le Green Deal est le nouveau contrat social, le Grand Continent, September 2021.
- The Walloon regional government spent more than 2.8 billion euros on disaster relief and rehabilitation work. It received a simple loan from the federal government, and a European grant of 88 million euros, less than 3% of the expenditure caused by the natural disaster.
- See Paul Magnette, Le croissant fossile, Aux origines de l’Anthropocène, le Grand Continent, February 2022.
- See Ana Póvoas, Jacques Lévy et Jean-Nicolas Fauchille, Théorie de la justice spatiale : Géographies du juste et de l’injuste, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2018.
- See Stefano Bartolini, Restructuring Europe, Centre formation, System Building, and Political Structuring between the Nation State and the European Union, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Zetkin Collective, Fascisme fossile, L’extrême droite, l’énergie, le climat, Paris, La fabrique éditions, 2020.
- See Rob Hopkins, The Transition Companion, Making your community more resilient in uncertain times, Londres, Transition Books, 2011.
- Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, Polity Press, 2018.
To cite the article
Paul Magnette, The European City in The Climate Transition, Jan 2023, 42.
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