It is becoming increasingly clear that the complex challenges of climate change, environmental degradation and rising inequality will not be solved without a fundamental transformation of our societies. The EEA’s European Environment – State and Outlook 2020 Report (SOER 2020) emphasises that cities are key drivers of change in broader sustainability transitions across Europe.

The report is the first in a series of European Environment Agency (EEA) outputs focusing on urban sustainability transitions. Drawing on the expertise of a wide range of stakeholders, the EEA has developed an overarching conceptual framework for urban environmental sustainability to provide the basis for future assessments. The report aims to provide important lessons about how cities and national governments can foster more sustainable urban growth that protects the environmental quality and creates thriving, low-carbon and climate-resilient communities.

The EEA’s analysis emphasised that cities have a primary role in pushing forward societal change by harbouring the circulation of ideas and encouraging social and technological innovations, experiments and changes in values, lifestyles and approaches to governance. Cities are places where systemic challenges must be met, but cities differ enormously in the challenges they face and the tools they have available to address these.

Urban environmental sustainability transitions: drivers and barriers

Across the EU, environmental sustainability is recognised as a vital role of cities as champions. Yet, there is not enough information about what allows some cities to engage in transformative change in this arena. Understanding the underlying factors that have allowed some European cities to address complex environmental challenges while simultaneously thriving economically and strengthening their social fabric has relevance far beyond the case of individual cities. 

The exploratory work delivers essential findings concerning the key drivers of, and barriers to, urban sustainability transitions. While some elements provided a level of consensus, there was also divergence in how cities assessed the importance of different factors. Factors identified as extremely important to achieving sustainability transitions by some cities were highlighted as barriers or seen as less relevant by others, indicating that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

What is driving cities’ environmental change?

EU laws and policy frameworks have a key role to play in accelerating sustainability changes in cities. Cities are strongly incentivised, supported and even inspired by EU laws, standards, regulations and funding opportunities. The European Green Deal, the Urban Agenda for the EU and various EU Directives (e.g. Water Framework Directive, Energy Efficiency Directive, Energy Performance of Buildings Directive) all play a critical role in shaping city action.

Local research and experimentation can accelerate innovation and is critical to identifying locally appropriate solutions by using the city as a testbed for new ideas. It also allows cities to think about the different sustainability nexuses they want to address and find solutions that can lead to co-benefits across other critical policy sectors. For example, a sense of ownership and shared responsibility can help create a shared understanding of sustainability issues across various government sectors and levels. While fostering buy-in from the private sector and the general public, encouraging behavioural changes supports the sustainability transition. Other investments, such as new technologies, can also play an important role. While new technologies are not a panacea for all Environmental challenges, technological developments play an important role in accelerating sustainability transitions. Following this, accessing EU, national and private funding plays a critical role in supporting cities’ sustainably transitions. Governments can help to accelerate systemic change by reorienting financial flows towards sustainable investments and developing relevant knowledge systems and skills to support these.

Green procurement processes and sustainable consumption are essential drivers of change. Green procurement practices provide an opportunity for cities to align public spending with core environmental objectives, so these processes need to be simplified and streamlined. Ensuring that individuals use their purchasing power for good can be a challenging area for cities to influence. Still, more sustainable consumption patterns within wider society were a vital complement to local government efforts.

Future research opportunities

The findings and emerging lessons from this study provide an entry point to a broader conversation about the drivers of urban sustainability transitions. Further research will be needed to develop a more definitive overview of the multitude of complex and interrelated factors that shape sustainability outcomes in European cities.

Source: European Environment Agency

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