The COVID-19 crisis brought the world to a standstill in 2020. City centres became ghost towns, economic activity slumped, and political priorities fell by the wayside as managing the pandemic became the all-consuming political focus. However, what has not stood still despite the pandemic is the alarming rate that our planet continues to heat up. Unless we align our recovery with our climate targets, another global pandemic will be a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’. The need to make up for lost time to meet these targets – all while ensuring a resilient recovery from the pandemic – presents a once-in-a-generation political challenge.

The scale of the task at hand has not been lost on Europe’s leaders, who are determined for the EU to spearhead global efforts to meet the Paris Climate Goals. Indeed, Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen’s lofty choice of metaphor – describing the European Green Deal as our “man on the moon moment” – reflects the political impetus to deliver a climate ‘moonshot’ by 2030.

But as any seasoned astronaut will tell you, a successful mission to a great degree depends on the people leading on the ground. That is why on 9 June as part of EU Green Week, the AER’s Task Force on Climate brought together international experts, EU and regional policymakers for an open discussion on how our regions can lead a sustainable, resilient recovery across Europe. Moderated by AER President, Magnus Berntsson, this was a chance to explore how regions can chart the path towards carbon neutrality, and ensure “a better, greener and more resilient future” for our villages, towns and cities.

Leading Europe's Mission on the Ground

All things in nature, including the climate crisis, are connected and demand a collective response. In his opening remarks, President Berntsson stressed the need “for joint action by all levels of government” to achieve global objectives. This was echoed by first speaker, Veronika Hunt Šafránková, Head of the United Nations Environment Programme Brussels Office. She underlined that the “interconnected nature” of challenges like pollution, biodiversity loss and global warming means “they must be addressed together to maximise benefits and minimise trade-offs.” Regional and local authorities are essential actors in this effort, for example, by translating green funding into “effective stimulus policies that will lead us towards decarbonisation.”

The European Commission shares this view. Our second speaker, Elena Višnar-Malinovská, Head of Unit for Adaptation at DG CLIMA called for regions “to come on board the spaceship” to help reach emissions targets. Regions, she noted, have already started implementing effective climate and energy laws, adopted climate-friendly budgets, and will be essential in monitoring how closely Europe’s climate targets are being adhered to.

AER members are leading from the front on this issue. Arnau Queralt-Bassa, Director of the Advisory Council for Sustainable Development of Catalonia [ES], pointed to Catalonia Region’s new CO2 fund that would be paid for using a Carbon Tax. Another example came from Värmland Region [SE], where policies aimed at improving energy efficiency have seen a 70% reduction in carbon emissions from buildings, according to Eva Hallström, Chair of the AER’s Working Group on Energy & Climate. Similarly, Donegal County Council in Ireland is in the process of creating an energy agency and making use of “nature based solutions” to meet climate challenges. All of Donegal Council’s policy initiatives are being framed within a written “statement of intent” guided by the Sustainable Development Goals. So while regions are working on the ground to translate global ambition into local action, they cannot go it alone.

Supporting Local Solutions to Global Challenges

The climate crisis affects Europe’s regions in different ways and to varying degrees. A truly sustainable and resilient recovery is therefore only possible if it meets the diverse territorial needs of all Europe’s regions. Dominique Riquet, Member of the European Parliament and Rapporteur on the Opinion of the Committee on Transport on the Just Transition Fund, noted that many Eastern European regions will struggle to shift to climate neutral economies without “ambitious financial support”.

It also demands a real say for regions in implementing Green Deal legislation. “Regions” he stressed “will need to play a key role in drafting the legislation delivering the Green Deal to make sure regional differences are taken into account.” The success of the Green Deal will to a large degree “depend on the ability to tailor legislation”. He pointed to the success of regions in managing European programmes – in particular Cohesion Policy – as clear evidence of their experience and expertise in making sure that funding gets where it is needed. Mr Riquet stressed that regions “will be more important than ever” when it comes to implementing elements of the Green Deal like the ‘Fit for 55’ package.

This need for a territorial approach was further emphasised by our final speaker, Andries Gryffroy, Member of the European Committee of the Regions and its Rapporteur on the European Green Deal. “The Green Deal”, he said “is a credible plan, but must take “a bottom-up, balanced and targeted approach” if it is to effectively address the many environmental, economic and social challenges presented by the climate crisis. The same logic applies to national recovery plans. Chair of the AER working group on Transport and Mobility, Martin Tollén, pointed out that while regions are working hard to deliver sustainable solutions to reduce carbon emissions, there are limits to what can be done going it alone. Mr Tollen underlined that “Regions need to be “fully integrated in the design and implementation” of national recovery plans to meet diverse territorial needs and drive the wider green agenda.

Other important disparities that need to be addressed were highlighted in contributions from AER members. Victor Vaugoin, Director of Lower Austria’s EU Liaison Office, said that the nexus between the green and digital transitions means that less well-resourced rural regions could lose out on new opportunities in the green economy. For this reason, it is essential that the digital skills gap is addressed to ensure a fair transition. Another vitally important concern – gender equality – was highlighted by Värmland [SE] Councillor, Kenneth Johansson from the AER’s Equal Opportunities Group. Woman are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis, and it is therefore crucial that this lopsided impact “is better understood” and – more importantly – “reflected in legislation, programming and planning” at all levels of government.

Europe’s ‘moonshot’ mission to save our planet will only be a success if all levels of government “come on-board”. As we learned during the debate, local and regional authorities are leading the recovery using all resources available to them. However, to ensure a fair, green and resilient recovery, their ambitions needs to matched with political and financial support European and national level; offering regions significant financial support and a real say in how legislation is implemented to meet territorial needs.

No one is questioning Europe’s ambition when it comes to achieving our climate targets. However, starting locally and supporting our regions will be absolutely crucial if this moonshot mission is to ever get off the ground.


Missed our Bureau debate? Never fear – you can rewatch on YouTube channel here: [video=]