Cities are considered pioneers in climate policy. But does this image correspond to reality, or does it in fact only apply to a few wealthy metropolises? Two research projects at the IRS have taken a closer look at the climate policy activities of cities. The result: there are many different positions, and old imbalances persist. But social pressure has made a difference almost everywhere, especially in recent years.
Cities account for around 70% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide - from transport, industry, construction activity and the heating and cooling of buildings. At the same time, they are particularly affected by climate change: Heat waves, heavy rain and storms cause severe damage to property and endanger the health of the urban population, even leading to deaths. For almost 30 years, some cities have therefore been committed to climate protection. They are reducing greenhouse gas emissions by, for example, expanding electromobility, cycle paths and public transport, or promoting building modernisation. More recently, in the face of increasingly extreme weather events, climate change adaptation measures have been added, such as land unsealing, urban and building greening to promote natural cooling and infiltration. Currently, such approaches are being discussed under the buzzword of the "sponge city". Cities are therefore now predominantly perceived as drivers of progress in the climate debate. In his book "If Mayors Ruled the World", the American political scientist Benjamin R. Barber even attributed to cities the role of the central political shapers of a networked world - which, in his view, are thus replacing the "dysfunctional" nation states.
Which Cities are Taking Action – and Why?
So, are cities the pioneers of climate protection and adaptation? This is not such a sweeping statement. Initially, it was particularly wealthy Eur opean metropolises such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Paris that pursued ambitious and high-profile transformation policies. This gave them a lot of visibility on the world stage, for example as venues for climate summits and as namesakes for treaties such as the "Paris Agreement". But what about the big cities in the second tier, what about smaller, poorer or old industrial cities? Who is acting, for climate mitigation and/or adaptation, with what focus and ambition? What factors determine action, and can learning among cities be a stimulating factor?
Two IRS research projects address these questions. In the project "Matching Forerunner Cities" (MaFoCi), Kristine Kern and Wolfgang Haupt from the research department "Institutional Change and Regional Public Goods", in cooperation with the Finnish Åbo Akademi University and on behalf of the Finnish city of Turku - a climate protection pioneer city that wants to become climate neutral by 2029 - investigated what the city can learn from comparably positioned cities in the Baltic Sea region in terms of climate policy. Malmö (Sweden), Groningen (The Netherlands) and Rostock (Germany) were selected as the cities for comparison. The three cities have many structural similarities with Turku: they are of similar size, are considered climate policy pioneers in their respective countries, are traditional Hanseatic cities, have a strong research infrastructure as old university cities, and have had to cope with similar structural change processes in the course of their history.
In the transdisciplinary research project "Urban Resilience via-a-vis Extreme Weather Events - Typologies and Transfer" (ExTrass), which the IRS is promoting in cooperation with the University of Potsdam and the project partner cities of Potsdam, Würzburg and Remscheid, among others, the focus is on adaptation to extreme weather in German cities. The IRS team, consisting of Kristine Kern, Wolfgang Haupt, Peter Eckersley and Janne Irmisch, surveyed the climate policy activity, both in climate protection and in climate adaptation, in all German cities over 50,000 inhabitants and all cities over 100,000 inhabitants (104 cities in total). Using extensive desktop research, analysis of policy documents and interviews with experts, the researchers identified climate policy strategies and institutional structures, including human resources. The team also examined the evolution of concepts and strategies over time and their translation into concrete action. By counting and scoring the findings, they were able to quantify the climate policy activity of cities and assign them to different clusters. At the beginning of the project, the team conducted in-depth case studies ("pathway analyses") in the three partner cities, the aim of which was to understand how cities come to have their own climate policies in the first place over time - what drives them, what inhibits them, what makes them special. Later, once more was known about the structural differences among the 104 study cities, such path analyses were conducted for 17 other cities with very different setups. In total, the project team conducted over 70 interviews with representatives from city administrations, local politics and civil society in 20 cities.
Between Climate Protection and Climate Adaptation
It became clear that urban climate policy is first and foremost a question of resources. Large cities with a larger budget for climate policy are more likely to be able to afford specialist departments and permanent positions for climate protection and/or climate adaptation, while smaller municipalities often operate at best on a grant basis and can only employ climate managers on a temporary basis. The long-standing leading metropolises continue to occupy the top positions in climate protection and climate adaptation with climate protection having been established for much longer and supplemented over time by climate adaptation activities. Nevertheless, some smaller large cities and also medium-sized cities have also worked their way into strong positions. A certain role specialisation is discernible, such as the distinction between "leader" and "pioneer". Some cities are extremely active in international networks, receive awards for their climate and sustainability policies and present themselves as role models ("Leaders" such as Freiburg). Others have very progressive concepts and measures, but communicate this less to the outside world because they have less interest or simply no capacity to build an international profile ("Pioneers" such as Karlsruhe).
The distinction between climate protection and climate adaptation is also very significant for smaller cities. Some cities are strongly specialised in climate protection and have only late started to develop climate adaptation concepts (e.g. Bonn, Erlangen, Freiburg). Others put climate adaptation in the foreground from the very beginning (e.g. Oberhausen, Solingen, Wuppertal, Karlsruhe). Still others, such as Würzburg in Bavaria, started their own climate policy late, but are now addressing both fields of action together. Even among the international leaders, differences are discernible here. Turku in Finland, for example, is one of the world's leading cities in climate protection, but has some catching up to do in the area of climate adaptation.
In the course of its research, the ExTrass team has developed a differentiated position on the integration of climate protection and adaptation. In the IRS podcast Society@Space, urban researcher Wolfgang Haupt advocates close coordination of the fields of action: "It is always about space. What do you do with a roof? You can green it - a classic climate adaptation measure. You can build solar cells on it - a classic climate protection measure. You can also combine both. To do this, however, the two areas must act in a coordinated manner." From the perspective of municipalities, adaptation to climate change is increasingly becoming the focus of attention. Although, as with climate protection, it is not a compulsory task of local government, various compulsory tasks are affected by it: safeguarding the drinking water supply, for example, and protecting the population from disasters. Climate protection, on the other hand, must be reconciled with other objectives of urban building, transport and energy policy in an increasingly tense environment
Drivers and Barriers to Climate Action
In general, the climate policy activity of cities is favoured by the presence of scientific institutions. If cities have universities and relevant research institutes or, moreover, cultivate the self-image of a science city, they are much more likely to actively address climate change and develop appropriate strategies. Trusting relationships and exchange formats between science and city administration are particularly productive in this regard. One example of such an established relationship is the "Climate Partnership City and Science" in Potsdam, which was established in 2018. In contrast, it is an obstacle to climate policy activity if a city society, especially its political networks, is dominated by representatives of traditional fossil fuel industries, and if the city's identity is strongly shaped by these industries. The research team has observed this relationship, for example, in individual traditional centres of automobile production as well as in centres of coal extraction and coal-fired power generation. Several cities from this group are among the most inactive in terms of climate policy of the entirety studied.It can be beneficial, especially for climate protection, if cities have access to infrastructure companies for energy supply, public transport or housing, for example through municipal ownership. This can be seen again in the example of the city of Turku, which is shaping a climate-effective infrastructure policy through municipal companies. Similar examples can be found in Freiburg and Potsdam. However, the example of energy policy, especially in the current tense situation on the gas market, shows that the goal of energy security can be understood and addressed in different ways: in the sense of a decisive turn towards renewable energies and decentralised production, or in the sense of a more defensive hedging with fossil energy sources. Research has shown that fundamental decisions about the design of energy supply networks shape cities and their climate performance for decades.Windows of opportunity in building policy have a similar effect. If a city has planning capacity, favourable ownership, investment capital, vacant land and/or a designable building stock, it can implement numerous measures that lead to better adaptation to climate change and significantly reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions. However, if cities are constrained by natural features (e.g. basin location, river and seafront location) and building stock (e.g. listed buildings or little municipal ownership), they have fewer options for climate-oriented building policies. However, it should be noted here that areas with historic buildings are often already designed to be sustainable and climate-friendly - for example, through durable construction, short distances and infiltration-friendly floor coverings such as cobblestones.
Civil Society as a Source of Legitimacy and a Power Factor
In recent years in particular, the civil society dimension of urban climate policy has gained massively in importance. This is partly due to the growing desire for participation among the population and in politics itself. The IRS also investigated the possibilities for improved civil society participation in urban climate policy as part of the MaFoCi project on behalf of the City of Turku. Turku - like Finland as a whole - has an extremely capable and modern public sector, but social participation in policy formulation is hardly anchored there. Groningen and Rostock, two cities with a high level of participation, were available as comparative cases in the project. Groningen in the Netherlands in particular can look back on a decades-long tradition of active civic initiative, which has contributed significantly to Groningen's transformation into a bicycle city, among other things. However, the difference proved to be so great that findings from the comparative cities were hardly transferable. In contrast, the research team found what they were looking for in a project in the city of Zwickau, which, like ExTrass, is also funded by the BMBF's "City of the Future" funding line. The Saxon industrial city has only been one of the economic beneficiaries of a climate-friendly transformation since the VW electric car plant opened in 2019. However, the population remained predominantly sceptical, and participation structures were generally poorly developed. The Turku city administration was able to learn from Zwickau how participation structures can be gradually tested and established in an environment without a pronounced participatory culture. Although the level of civil society participation differs from city to city, an increasing interest in popular participation can be observed almost everywhere.
However, in recent years civil society itself has become a power factor that has significantly influenced climate policy activity, especially in the form of the Fridays4Future movement. In many cities, the political level has recognised the necessity of climate policy measures for years and has developed comprehensive strategy concepts. However, a lack of budgets, positions and routines in the administration, as well as a lack of a culture of debate, created effective institutional barriers to translating commitments or concepts into action. Across the cities studied, it was now apparent that the movement was able to resolve even deep-seated resistance thanks to its persistence. "The local Fridays4Future groups always kept going, were never satisfied and continuously pushed," explains ExTrass project worker Janne Irmisch. "Fridays4Future protests have also been more effective as key events than, for example, the declaration of a climate emergency in many municipalities," Irmisch continues. Not only through strikes and demonstrations, but also through regular talks with politicians and administrators, the young activists achieved immediate measures and funding increases. As a result, local groups of other environmental organisations such as BUND and Greenpeace have backed Fridays4Future - also for tactical reasons - so that civil society has been mobilised on a broad front.
Can Cities Learn from Each Other?
Especially in the currently less active municipalities, local politicians and administrations are now faced with the challenge of translating the increasing political and social pressure into suitable strategies and implementing the proposed measures. Smaller and less resource-efficient cities in particular are finding this difficult. Where to orientate oneself? In the public eye, the successful and well-networked Leader cities are particularly visible. Their lead seems unassailable, and copying their development paths is not an option for most "laggard" cities.
As Wolfgang Haupt, Peter Eckersley and Kristine Kern show in their research report "Transfer and Scaling of Local Climate Policy" (IRS Dialog 1/2021), climate policy learning among cities is still hardly developed. Inappropriate role models are one possible explanation for this. As shown above, even for a pioneering climate change city like Turku, it can be difficult to find suitable role models for its own development. The "Matching Cities" approach developed in the MaFoCi project may be able to help. According to this approach, those responsible for climate policy in cities should try to find other cities that are in a similar situation, but already have a certain head start in terms of experience, in relation to a specific problem. These specific experiences will have a high practical relevance for their own situation. A medieval city that is highly dependent on tourism, such as Speyer or Bamberg, should accordingly look for other role models than, for example, an old industrial city such as Cottbus or Gelsenkirchen. The ExTrass team is currently working on a handout for municipalities to help them reflect on their own position, find suitable reference cases and establish contacts.
However, this will not completely solve the resource problem of smaller municipalities in particular. Establishing climate protection and climate adaptation as a compulsory municipal task could help here, as the cities would then – unlike in the past – also be allocated resources for these tasks. This would help those municipalities in particular that have not yet become active in climate policy due to a lack of funds. In general, the specific problems of small urban municipalities have received too little attention in research to date. The ExTrass project has also so far only included independent cities with a population of 50,000 or more, thus leaving out many smaller municipalities. However, the project will enter a two-year transfer phase starting in 2022, in which the insights gained so far will be put to even broader use and further data will be collected. In this second phase, the project team will include all German cities with a population of 50,000 or more.
The project "Urban resilience to extreme weather events - typologies and transfer of adaptation strategies in small cities and medium-sized towns" (ExTrass) is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and coordinated at the University of Potsdam. Further collaborative partners are Adelphi Research gGmbH, the state capital Potsdam, Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe e.V., the city of Remscheid and the city of Würzburg. ExTrass runs from 2018 to 2023.