Energy security and climate: Cities stepping up to protect Europe 

Summer alerts are threatening European climate objectives 



Fausto Zaccaro

Publication date

July 21, 2022

Summer is here and while travelers are preparing their luggage to reach their touristic destination, the holiday season is covering Europeans with a misleading sense of reassurance. Truth is, a war is raging in Ukraine, and energy supply is jeopardized in Europe. The Ukrainians are still being brutally shelled every day and European leaders are scrambling to figure out how they will be providing energy to our communities and economies, when the cold months will be at our doorstep.  

Energy prices are climbing and natural gas supply is getting weaker every week. Member States across Europe are now registering only 40 to 60% of the flow they were receiving from Russia last year. And while Gazprom does not fulfil its contractual obligations, European gas storage facilities are struggling to refill. 

Yesterday the European Commission released the Save gas for a safe winter package, a strategy to encourage Member States to reduce their gas consumption by 15% from August to March, in order to react to possible further supply disruptions from Russia. The plan auspicates to tap on gas saving potentials in buildings, power plants and industries, but it also encourages Member States to increase domestic extraction activities and carry out fuel switches in favor of more polluting energy carriers, this is a terrible news for climate objectives and ambitions to reduce emissions. 

Summer alerts are threatening European climate objectives 

The Netherlands is preparing to ramp up the output of the Groningen field, the largest natural gas reserve in continental Europe. Although it has been labelled as a measure of last resort, the likelihood of it could reverse the phasing out prospects by 2028, and plunge nearby communities back into human-induced earthquakes caused by the extraction activities. 

They call it ‘The Coal Renaissance’: coal-fired thermal powerplant that terminated operations or were about to, but are now being recommissioned at full capacities to balance the electricity grids. 

Germany and Italy are rampant examples of coal phase out prospects being scrapped to save as much gas as possible to accelerate the refill of storages. Berlin is resuming operations of up to 16 dormant power units, while extending the life of 11 functioning ones. Rome meanwhile is preparing to intensify the capacity of 6 units.  

In Austria, the Ministry for Climate Action and Energy is providing financial support to industries and energy-intensive installations to temporarily switch from gas to oil, while a thermal power plant in Styria has been fired up with coal despite the nation successfully phased it out in 2020. 

Those are terrible news for Europe’s climate objectives, as the national initiatives taken to balance the precarious energy landscape, slingshot the continent ten years back in time, when 55% emissions reduction by 2030 and climate-neutrality by 2050 were not even conceivable. Ahead of winter, there is an alarming gap of more than 100 billion of cubic metres of Russian natural gas hanging under a tread and the Kremlin would be very eager to leverage it in order to retaliate to EU sanctions. Diversification of supply and fuel substitution can bring us only so far.

The only significant solution on Europe’s table to prepare for winter is to avoid consuming energy in the first place.

Cities are becoming pillars of Europe’s energy security 

Reducing energy consumption can offer concrete alternatives to the recent coal-fired emergency planning pursued by national governments. Since the Russian aggression of Ukraine, cities across Europe have taken a hard stance against Putin and his energy blackmailing, fending off by themselves from skyrocketing utility bills and standing beside the people of Ukraine. Many European mayors chose not to finance the Kremlin’s war machine and refused to submit to a costly dependence on Russian fossil fuels, decreasing their energy consumption to guarantee services to their citizens and to preserve their climate ambitions

Reminding the energy saving measures induced by the Oil Crisis of 1973, municipalities have tightened their belt to cut utility expenditures, while maintaining adequate levels of comfort in the lifestyle of their inhabitants. There are several areas of actions in which local governments have already been able to take a proactive role: 

  • HEATING accounts for a huge share of gas consumption in urban landscapes and readjusting the thermostat by few degrees could yield consistent savings. The Dutch capital of Amsterdam reduced the temperature of its district heating system from 21°C to 18°C, decreasing by 15% the municipal consumption of natural gas. 
  • STREET LIGHTING is a sector that can significantly reduce pressure on electricity grids. The Bulgarian municipality of Sredets decreased the operational activities of public lighting by 40 minutes during the night, while lowering the intensity of light bulbs. 
  • MOBILITY is heavily affected by petrol markets, but few urban regulations can ease the pressure of fuel prices. The French City of Lyon reduced the speed limit to 30 km/h in 84% of the city’s roads, increasing fuel efficiency for the drivers and encouraging the use of public transportation to move faster. 

These are just a few examples that demonstrate that local governments are best placed to reduce energy demand ahead of possible winter shortages. Rooted in their territories, municipalities can tap into an enormous energy saving potential that national governments are in desperate need for. A potential that can also be found across communities willing to reduce their energy consumption, but that can only be taken advantage of if reached out with local campaigning activities and enjoying a trusting bond with local authorities. 

What’s to be expected for winter? 

Europe is at a crossroad. Declining energy availability is forcing national governments to make choices that compromise climate ambitions and our aspirations for a sustainable future. Coal is a monster of the past that cannot be relied upon anymore, and while we make amend with gas and oil to currently power up our economies, ramping up any fossil fuel available to make up for gaps in energy supply is a terrible choice for our planet. Avoiding energy consumption is the only sustainable option for Europe to keep a tough stance against the Russian aggressor, to increase our energy independence and to uphold our climate ambitions. 

Cities are now increasingly making their way as protectors of the European energy security landscape, committing without precedents to a domain that had historically been an exclusive prerogative of national governments. By reducing their energy consumption, municipalities have the potential to protect Europe’s climate ambitions and prevent reckless national energy planning. 

The Cities’ Energy Saving Sprint has been a powerful driver to encourage local governments to take energy saving actions. Launched by the Covenant of Mayors – Europe, in collaboration with the European Commission and the European Committee of the Regions, the campaign aims to raise awareness across local governments about the options available to them to safeguard citizens from growing energy prices and risks of cuts off. 

Sign up your city to the Sprint and contribute to Europe’s energy independence!