1990 – 2020 – 2050

Policy op-ed by Claire Roumet


Publication date

January 9, 2020

A new decade, the « year of no return » for climate action, which is starting with gigantic fires in the Southern hemisphere… But I will not comment on current or future catastrophes or state again how urgent it is to act.

In 2020, Energy Cities will be celebrating its 30th anniversary. Like many other city networks we were created in the run-up to the Rio Summit. What was the situation like 30 years ago? The Berlin Wall had just collapsed and the iron curtain that had divided Europeans for almost 30 years was falling apart.

30 years is also the time we have left to reach carbon neutrality. 2050 is 30 years from now. I am just stating the obvious, but it is sometimes useful to illustrate it.  For me, it is quite easy. 30 years ago, as it happened, I was on a school trip to Berlin, and I remember it very well. 30 years is not infinity. It is both long and short. It is tangible.

It is also fascinating because everything, or almost everything, has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  And everything can still change in the next 30 years.  Of course, in 1990, there was no Internet, no mobile phones, no electric scooters on the pavement, much less plastic in supermarkets, my aunt made delicious jams and my grand-father (not so delicious) wine.  People travelled less by plane to go on holiday or, as in my case, not at all, and young people looked exactly the same as today (sometimes changing means coming full circle!).

At the end of last year, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Tartu, a city in southern Estonia.  30 years ago, it witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire. In 2003, walking and cycling accounted for 45% of all journeys made, and their modal share is still 30% today. This is well above the European average, but what a decline in only 15 years! The city had a very low carbon balance, the district heating system using 100% renewable energy. Since then, the demand for electricity has soared, driven by large shopping centres and the education sector.  The energy mix in Estonia is mostly based on a local, but highly polluting, source of energy (shale oil). The energy use has increased by 23% and GHG emissions by 17% since 2010. The city’s urban landscape has also drastically changed, reflecting the city’s economic development. In less than two decades.

So many things can be changed at the scale of a city that I do not question our capacity for resilience, or for developing “zero-carbon” alternatives that imply bringing some jobs or businesses back into our cities.

This visit filled me with a lot of enthusiasm to start the new decade. Local leaders are ambitious and have plans to make the city carbon-neutral by 2050. They have identified how this can be achieved and have the confidence of those who have experienced past transformations.

Tartu will be the European Capital of Culture 2024. It won this high-level competition by developing its project around the “Arts of Survival” thread and three themes: “Tartu with Earth: Ecology before Economy”, “Tartu with Humanity: Forward to the Roots” and “Tartu with Europe: Greater Smaller Cities”.

What better programme to start 2020? It is a wonderful proposal that I would like to discuss with the Energy Cities community to prepare the next 30 years; with our 30 years of experimentation and debate as backup!