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NetZeroCities launches €32m scheme for carbon neutral cities 

© Shutterstock / jamesteohartSmart city.

NetZeroCities has launched a €32 million programme, inviting cities across Europe to pilot innovative approaches to achieving carbon neutrality. 

European cities have been invited to apply for a €32 million funding and support scheme to help them test out systemic solutions to achieving carbon neutrality.

The programme reflects a broader shift towards systems approaches as a means of developing future-proof, equitable cities.

Cities provide an ideal testbed for systemic approaches to sustainable development that could be replicated in other communities across the world.

About NetZeroCities’s programme

NetZeroCities, a four-year project comprising 33 partners and coordinated by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology’s Climate Knowledge and Innovation Community, has launched a two-year programme that will provide grant funding and hands-on support to 30 cities within EU member states or Horizon Europe Associated Countries. 

The funding will be used to pilot novel solutions that could help accelerate progress towards carbon neutrality. A total of €32 million will be available under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 framework, with each selected city to receive a €0.5 million, €1 million or €1.5 million share. 

In addition to financial support, chosen cities will gain access to the experience, knowledge, and services of the NetZeroCities platform. This support will encourage a systemic approach, with cities to be selected based on their consideration of all urban systems. 

Preference will be awarded to those that plan to integrate social, cultural, financial, regulatory, technological and nature-based innovation within their solutions, indicating the project’s commitment to developing systemic approaches to urban development. 

The broader shift towards systems thinking 

The project reflects a broader shift towards systems approaches as a means of developing futureproof cities that are well-prepared to cope with the diverse range of challenges emerging within the 21st Century. 

These challenges, which include climate change, inequality, resource scarcity and conflict, among others, are deeply intertwined and continuously evolving.  

Systems approaches are based on the premise our solutions must be equally holistic. Such thinking forces decision-makers to view the bigger picture, planning their actions based on how different social, economic and environmental systems interact over time.  

The World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Future Council on Cities of Tomorrow has recently expressed its commitment to systems approaches, suggesting that such thinking should be a central feature of development projects across the globe. 

WEF provides blueprint for systems approaches to city planning

For city leaders, the WEF has published four reports which come together to provide a comprehensive blueprint of how cities can use systems approaches to build resilience against the impacts of climate change, establish innovative funding mechanisms for urban development, optimise their use of digital technologies to provide a sustainable recovery from COVID-19 and promote urban equity and inclusion. 

Each report, developed by 45 international experts in the sector, provides step-by-step frameworks backed by evidence from best practice case studies. 

The foreword to ‘Delivering Climate-Resilient Cities Using a Systems Approach’ explains the rationale for prioritising systems thinking. It says: “Piecemeal solutions are ineffective. We need unified and holistic solutions that can deal with the climate crisis in an integrated way, addressing current and future infrastructural needs to make societies and the planet more resilient to devastating climate events. We must also factor in socioeconomic demands”. 

It adds that “our approach must be integrative, at scale, innovative and systematic to deal with today’s needs while mitigating risk and planning for future, resilient generations to come”, and notes how “extraordinary rewards can be attained, especially if siloed thinking is dismantled.” 

The authors describe how deconstructing the barriers between different components of urban environments can shed light on how addressing one issue might generate unexpected co-benefits elsewhere, prompting innovation across the board. 

Similarly, where problems feed into one another, a system-wide perspective allows potential consequences to be tackled promptly. 

Why focus on cities? 

Cities are estimated to contribute over 70% of the world’s CO2 emissions, and will be home to home around 70% of the global population by 2050.

There is no question that climate change will expose these communities to increasing occurrences of frequent and dangerous weather events, including extreme heat, mass flooding and uncontrollable wildfires. At the same time, cities are centres of economic growth, innovation and transformation.

Cities hold substantial influence and can encourage progress in the decarbonisation of macro-level systems such as the energy, food and transport industries. Their experimentation with systems approaches would expand thinking around climate change from just another problem to be addressed to a means of developing actionable plans that provide far greater social and economic benefits for the future of the global population. 

Alice Charles, leader of urban transformation at WEF Geneva, describes how cities are, “on the frontlines of climate mitigation and adaptation. They are also under pressure to improve residents’ standard of living and increase community cohesion while progressing towards sustainable development”. 

Charles adds that “to meet these high expectations, cities need to develop strategies using a systems perspective to deliver net-zero carbon and climate-resilient urban infrastructure”. 

Local authorities have a unique opportunity to experiment at a policy level, where successful interventions can be rapidly scaled. Meanwhile, local stakeholders can pioneer interventions and innovations, enabling iteration and adaptation to a changing climate – both environmental and economic.

Understanding the importance of the role cities will play in sustainable growth underpins the NetZeroCities project. It acknowledges the potential of using cities as crucial testbeds for systemic approaches to climate action through its mechanisms for collective learning.

Participating cities will be encouraged to share their knowledge and experience, and solutions that are identified for further implementation or replication will receive additional support in securing the necessary funding.

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