Can Europe’s Climate City Contracts Shake Up Urban Climate Action?
Stockholm, Sweden. Sweden’s emerging experience in developing climate city contracts offers takeaways for the EU Commission as it works toward climate neutral cities. Photo by Nazrin Babashova/Unsplash

Think big. Think bold. Think mission to the moon!

That’s the goal of the European Commission’s EU Mission program, which aims to package together funding, research and policy changes to deliver “concrete results” on ambitious goals by 2030. These goals include cleaning up the oceans, fighting cancer, ensuring soil health and food safety, and achieving 100 climate neutral cities by 2030.

The key mechanism behind the climate neutral cities mission is a concept called Climate City Contracts (CCCs). These are intended to be developed in a participatory way, and to be living, non-legal documents, functioning as a political commitment between the municipality and the European Commission. CCCs are structured around five key enablers that the European Commission believes can trigger innovation and unlock change: new forms of participatory and innovative governance; a new economic and funding model; integrated urban planning; digital technologies; and innovation management.

CCCs are intended to be different than current strategies to tackle climate change because they are being developed as part of a larger mission with many stakeholders, funding and growing momentum. They also have a strong focus on innovative governance and stakeholder engagement, and they are a dynamic planning tool, with plans to update them on a yearly basis.

It is hard to assess these differences in practice, as no EU Mission CCCs have been developed yet. But a possible indicator could be a very similar program in Sweden, underway since 2017 in which CCCs have been developed under the Viable Cities program, a national strategic innovation program focusing on the transition to climate neutral and sustainable cities.

Lessons from Sweden

Nine CCCs have been developed in Sweden, with stakeholders including municipalities, five national government agencies and the Viable Cities program itself. To assess these CCCs, we conducted a document analysis and semi-structured interviews with coordinators at three municipalities as well as two representatives from Viable Cities.

Our key finding is that the novelty, thus far, is in the process of developing the CCCs, rather than their content. In time, however, the content of CCCs could live up to the uniqueness of their process, as they are updated on a yearly basis.

Those interviewed noted that developing the contracts was different than the traditional approach to developing municipal documents.

First, the focus was mostly on process rather than outcomes. The concept of “contracting” as a verb is key, as the CCCs are expected to be developed in an iterative way over time.

Second, the contracts pushed municipalities to create a “Climate Investment Plan” inclusive of the private sector, as opposed to solely relying on traditional municipal funding streams.

Third, municipalities were provided new pathways for engaging with national government agencies, a line of communication, funding and policy coordination that can often be challenging for cities to navigate.

Finally, the speed at which the CCCs were developed was unprecedented. Viable Cities focused on kick-starting the process and creating momentum, rather than developing the perfect contract. This, however, limited stakeholder engagement, which in fact is a key requirement for the development of CCCs.

With regards to the content of Sweden’s CCCs, most municipalities relied largely on approved strategies and plans, as new content required political approval, which was not possible given the tight timelines. New content is expected to be developed in subsequent updates of the contracts.

In all the CCCs, each municipality described their engagement efforts, coordination structure, oversight and reporting plans, cross-sector collaboration, and initial funding plans, as these were requirements of the template. Most cities described a multi-level integration vision. The roles of digitalization, innovation and experimentation were also emphasized.

Few discussed the financial and policy tools needed to reach their goals in much detail. None explicitly mentioned the green economy, although some referenced the importance of the circular economy. Overall, minimal information is provided for each category as the contracts are designed to be concise documents.

Takeaways for Europe

The EU Mission has selected 112 cities to develop CCCs, and each city is expected to collaboratively develop and sign them with the European Commission. What can we take from the emerging experiences with design and development of CCCs in Sweden?

Multi-level integration and collaboration across stakeholders, attempting to overcome the traditional siloed approach to governance in cities, is a strength of the CCCs. But success requires breaking away from business as usual with new approaches and even new mindsets on collaboration.

Innovation, experimentation and learning are key to such systems innovation. But an overwhelming challenge is to move away from “projectification” or the cycle of project after project, and instead facilitate deeper and wider learning across projects and over time, learning from past mistakes and trying new approaches.

More engagement with citizens and stakeholders through a mix of participatory approaches is needed to fulfill the vision of CCCs. But there is a clear tension between this goal and the speed at which CCCs are being developed and the potential need for unpopular policies and changes in cities – namely fewer cars and less overall consumption.

The “elephant in the room” for city climate action is where the financing will come from to meet the ambitions. There is need for substantial investments, at a level only possible through a combination of government and private funds. Ambitious “Climate Investment Plans”, which encompass private sector efforts, are necessary to underpin the goals and activities outlined in CCCs.

Finally, for countries with many cities joining the EU Mission, they could follow the Viable Cites model, where the process of developing the CCCs was shaped by a national program. This ensured coordination, mobilization and standardization across city plans.

The EU Mission on climate neutral cities and related CCCs are being developed in the context of a larger program, hopefully providing a new force, legitimacy and inspiration to cities. Can these missions spark transformative change? An affirmative answer depends on thinking bigger, bolder and taking our moon shot towards climate neutral cities. 

Katherine Shabb is a PhD Student at Lund University in Sweden as part of the Massive Urban Missions project.  

Kes McCormick is an Associate Professor at Lund University in Sweden and the coordinator for the Massive Urban Missions project.

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