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16th Feb 2019

Magazine

'Nations talk, but cities act' on green policies

  • Four in every ten commuters in Copenhagen use a bicycle to go to work or school (Photo: Neerav Bhatt)

The European Union recently agreed to reduce its carbon emissions by at least 40 percent in 2030, a target its leaders hailed as ambitious.

But individual cities are going much further.

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By the time the EU has reached its climate target, Copenhagen, as one of the most green conscious EU capitals, hopes to have put worrying about carbon emissions behind it.

That is, if the Danish capital's local government manages to achieve its now two-year-old climate plan to be the world's first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.

Part of the scheme is to reduce the use of cars, which in the EU account for as much as 17 percent of the bloc's total emission of greenhouse gases.

In Copenhagen, 41 percent of the city's commuters travel by bicycle. Its sustainable transport policies earned the city of around 1.2 million people the title of European Green Capital of 2014.

Morten Kabell, Copenhagen's mayor of technical and environmental affairs, recently visited Brussels to attend an event on urban mobility, organised by Friends of Europe.

Kabell told this website that any European city – or elsewhere in the world – can become carbon neutral.

"If they have visionary leaders, if they have the courage to actually take it through city council, they can set the aim of becoming carbon neutral", said Kabell. "Courage, vision and implementation" is all a city's leadership needs.

But aren't some cities better equipped to have a large population of bicycle dwellers than others?

"You have to prioritise. Probably you can't have bicycle lanes in all streets, but then you can banish the car to larger streets that are more suited to the space that is needed for a car", says Kabell.

Copenhagen is "clearly a leader in terms of encouraging biking", said Magda Kopczynska, head of the directorate 'innovative and sustainable mobility', within the European Commission's transport department.

Kopczynska is impressed with Copenhagen's record of bicycle commuters in a city that has on average 113 rainy days a year.

"It's quite amazing considering that it is not a city in a member state with the most encouraging climate in the world", she said.

But the popularity of the bicycle does not come from an ideological choice to fight climate change.

"Copenhageners are not saints or better people than anyone else", said Kabell. Their reasons are more prosaic. "It's the fastest way to get around town."

Although Copenhagen has chosen to focus on carbon neutrality as a goal in itself, other cities have chosen to focus on other effects that come with a 'greener' city.

Health concerns

The Dutch capital Amsterdam on Tuesday (16 December) announced it wants to ban old diesel vans by 2017, increase the number of electrical car charging points from 1,000 to 4,000 by 2025, and have only carbon-neutral city buses by 2026.

In its press release, the city of Amsterdam did not focus on climate change as a driver for these measures, but on making the city "stronger, more liveable and healthy".

"We need to focus on many targets", Lena Malm, lord mayor of the Swedish city Gothenburg, told this website.

"If we make it easier to walk and to take the bicycle, we make our city more friendly for children", noted Malm.

Residents' health also plays a role.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris announced earlier in December that she wants to ban diesel cars from the centre of the French capital, citing health concerns.

London and the Belgian cities Antwerp and Brussels have similar plans for low-emission zones.

However, banning certain types of cars, or banning cars outright, can have consequences at the ballot box.

When Gothenburg introduced a congestion tax almost two years ago, to both reduce traffic jams and improve the city's environment, "a lot of people are very angry about it", said Malm. "You limit their freedom in a way."

Entering or exiting the city costs 18 Swedish krona (about €1.90) on weekdays between 7:00 and 8:00 and 15:30 and 17:00. The tax is less during other timeslots and free after 18:30 and before 6:00.

But the tax is working. "We have 12 to 13 percent lower traffic during the time when you have pay the taxes", said Malm.

As cities are able to take practical measures that are noticeable by its inhabitants, they almost naturally emerge as the frontrunners on the issue of sustainable transport, said Kabell.

"I see cities all around the globe actually acting to promote more livable, greener and more sustainable cities, whereas I see nations just doing nothing", he noted. "Today we see that nations talk, but cities act."

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2015 Regions & Cities Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of our Regions & Cities magazine.

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