What place for cities in the European Green Deal? Tallinn, a leader of the green transition

20 January 2022 /

5 min

The European Green Deal cannot work if it is strictly the responsibility of national governments and the European Union: cities and local governments have a crucial role to play in its implementation and in the green transition of Europe. Indeed, not only do they directly implement more than 70% of European legislation, they also are socio-economic hubs for citizens and industries with a huge impact on climate change. This is why more and more cities throughout Europe are adopting green strategies to foster sustainable development. On the forefront of these local efforts is the capital of Estonia, Tallinn, the most recent winner of the European Green Capital Award. Faced with the urgency of climate change, cities can have a huge impact at their level in the European Green Deal. 

Concrete projects with concrete results 

In order to reach the goals of the European Green Deal, European policy-makers need to adopt strategies that are attainable and that have visible impacts on the environment. One of the most ambitious goals the European Commission has set is to achieve no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, which would make Europe the first climate neutral continent in the world. However, vague promises of change made by national governments won’t be enough to cut significantly carbon emissions. This is where local green governance can have a positive influence. Cities, as they are on a smaller scale than countries or regions, have more opportunities to develop projects seeking to improve specific areas, such as the quality of air and water, carbon emissions, urban mobility, local and circular economy, energy consumption… 

The city council of Tallinn has implemented many city-wide projects to pursue its goal to be climate-neutral by 2050. Already in 2013, Tallinn became the first city in Europe with free public transport, and it is planning for public transport to be carbon neutral by 2050. With the ambitious goal of reducing the emission of greenhouse gas from transport, the city took concrete actions to contribute to the green transition. Other sustainable strategies implemented by the Baltic city are the protection of 19,5% of the city green areas and a 13km insect-friendly pollinator following the highway. These are concrete projects towards the protection of Estonia’s rich biodiversity, which was vastly depleted by industrial activities in the Soviet era. 

Working together to accelerate the green transition 

Cities are not alone in this green transition; they must work hand in hand with all levels of government to succeed. More than just implementing EU and national green policies, cities must be included in decision-making processes, as sustainable development cannot be achieved exclusively from the top-down. They are the closest link to the European citizens, and play a huge part in legitimizing the European Green Deal in the most populous areas of the Union. To have their voices heard at the higher levels of governance, many cities came together through various networks, such as Local Green Deals, the Conference on Sustainable Cities and Towns, or the Green City Accord. 

Mihhail Kõlvart, mayor of Tallinn since 2019, is a major advocate for sustainable urban development and environmental protection. In 2021, he embraced Tallinn’s efforts to achieve climate neutrality by signing the Green City Accord, an ambitious commitment to make European cities cleaner and healthier. He did so alongside fifty European mayors and the European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. Kõlvart stated his determination to support cities and European green transition: “One of our main ideas [as European Green Capital] is to create an international green governance competence hub in Tallinn that will gather and analyse information, work out, pilot and propose different governance models for cities in the process of the green transition. Facing the challenges is easier when you are not alone.” Tallinn has also received extra funds from the EU following its European Green Capital Award: 600,000€ that will serve the city well to share its expertise and trailblaze projects to other cities throughout Europe. 

Towards a more systematic and structured green transition 

A major pillar of the success of the European Green Deal is the interconnectedness of the policy areas related to the green transition. To build a sustainable economy, protect the environment and biodiversity, ensure good public health, reduce carbon emissions and mobilize citizens, all actors participating in the European Green Deal must share best practices to ensure a systematic and structured approach. Cities are in an excellent position to build and maintain a link between European and national decision-makers, local businesses and SMEs, enterprises, the education sector, and civil society. The need for coordination of green strategies is crucial to attain the Green Deal goals and to achieve “a resource efficient, resilient, low-carbon, and socially responsible society”. 

The city of Tallinn has adopted the ambitious strategy Climate-neutral Tallinn. Tallinn Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plan 2030 in 2021. The distinctive characteristic of the plan is its cross-sectoral scope, seeking to build a “comprehensive system of political, economic, technological, educational and administrative activities” in order to reduce the impacts of climate change and to adapt to the irreversible effects of climate change. 

Even the smallest political actor can have a great impact  

The role of cities and towns in the fight against climate change can often be forgotten due to their relative size compared to the Member States or even to the EU. However, they do have a fundamental role in the implementation of the European Green Deal and the development of good green practices. And even more, cities can complement European or national green transitions with concrete projects and more ambitious strategies to achieve climate neutrality. Not only are they the closest link to citizens and their immediate environmental issues, but many European cities are also world leaders in sustainable development. Tallinn is one of those great examples, and as such was consecrated by the EU to continue its good work towards a more sustainable Europe. However, there are still many challenges faced by the capital of Estonia, especially the country’s reliance on oil shale and its inefficient municipal waste management. Let’s hope the European Green Deal and the European cooperation-network will help Tallinn become a greener city. 

[This article was first published in the issue 35 of the magazine]

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