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Burkhard Jung is the president of Eurocities and the mayor of Leipzig.
In poker, one card out of place could make a hand worthless. And when it comes to a just and sustainable future, Europe’s cities have gone all in — now we just need our member countries and European parliamentarians to deal us the right legislation.
Today, cities are ready to do their fair share to ensure we stay within the limits of what our planet can provide. Yet, oddly, some national governments and politicians seem ready to turn their backs on a green deal that would put people at its heart — despite scientific consensus on the necessary steps.
My city of Leipzig is over 1,000 years old, located in a country that’s only 151 years young — so, perhaps it is just that cities are more used to taking the long view.
I’ve so far heard arguments, intended to slow the European Green Deal, surmising that the transition to a sustainable economy would disproportionately affect our most vulnerable communities, already suffering from the rising cost of living. But there’s no reason for this to be the case, as cities are already using policies promoting sustainable development to empower those very communities.
Grenoble is protecting the health of its residents, improving air quality by banning diesel cars in the city center. Utrecht is demonstrating how renewable and nature-based solutions can go hand in hand by investigating the combination of green and solar roofs, also ensuring those without personal gardens can enjoy the benefits of the plants and animals that share their city.
Warsaw is giving vulnerable communities new and better transport options by investing in shared, electric mobility. And with its participatory renovation of social housing, Vienna is ensuring its residents can contribute to the fight against climate change, while improving resilience against its ill effects — this is what the European Green Deal looks like in our great cities.
It’s also essential to know how to spot a bluff when playing poker. And perhaps it’s the fact that we walk the streets and speak with our residents directly that makes cities determined to back up talk with action. Today, over two-thirds of Europeans live in cities, and the actions of local leaders are essential for improving their quality of life — a responsibility we feel acutely. And that’s why, as we move into the implementation phase of the European Green Deal, it is cities that are seizing the moment, while other actors stall progress.
Another argument I’ve heard against the deal is that in the short term, further strengthening Europe’s environmental regulations would jeopardize the competitiveness and innovation of industry and services. But as the mayor of a city that boasts a slew of major industries, I’d be the last person to support legislation that would deal such a blow to them.
Building a sustainable economy isn’t just a moral imperative — it’s a tremendous economic opportunity. Making our cities and industries more energy-efficient will protect them against volatile energy costs and geopolitical uncertainty, while investing in green technologies will create millions of high-paying jobs and drive economic prosperity.
As any industry leader would tell you, the greatest danger to investment is not sustainability — it’s uncertainty. And if we send one set of signals with European targets and global agreements while sending the opposite with disjointed policy, we will ultimately stunt innovation and discourage investment in the very solutions needed to tackle climate change.
Europe’s cities have already set examples of this: Ghent has seen its dividends from the North Sea Port soar since it began working with the port authority on initiatives like more sustainable and circular steel production. And Helsinki has anticipated the Construction Products Regulation, working with companies and universities to upskill its workforce on using more sustainable materials, including new alternatives to traditional concrete.
Consistent, clear and ambitious environmental policies provide a level playing field and enable businesses to plan with confidence. And by embracing the European Green Deal, we can unlock its full economic potential, ensuring a prosperous, climate-neutral future for all of us.
Importantly, cities also have an intimate understanding of the cost of inaction — one that was hammered home during the COVID-19 crisis — and climate change poses a similar existential threat to industries and communities. Rising sea levels, more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, floods and storms — these aren’t just potential risks, they’re already happening, from Cologne to Bologna and Thessaloniki.
In terms of lost productivity, damage to infrastructure, health care and more, the economic cost of inaction is staggering as well — not to mention the incalculable human cost. The European Green Deal is an investment in our present and our future — and one we cannot afford to pass up. We have much more to lose by folding early than by staying at the table.
And yes, I am speaking now for Europe’s cities, but also as an ally of the surrounding countryside. As urban populations continue to soar, where will the parents, grandparents and siblings of our new arrivals live? Where is the food that sustains our children grown? Where does much of our workforce commute from? It’s our rural neighbors that cities like Turin work with closely to determine sustainability policies.
Meanwhile, the latest lamb on the altar of the so-called urban-rural divide was the Nature Restoration Law — EU legislation that will not only protect biodiversity, but also preserve ecosystems providing essential services to both rural and urban communities, from pollination to flood protection and carbon sequestration — which finally passed last week after receiving much kickback.
From the recent spat over internal combustion engines to this sudden push against the much needed Nature Restoration Law, let’s call out the backlash against the European Green Deal for what it is — short-termism and delusion. But Europe’s mayors don’t suffer from either of these afflictions. We are all-in. For us, it’s the Green Deal or bust, and it’s time everyone put their cards on the table.