adelphi-Interview: "Climate action is an answer to national isolationism"

adelphi's new project BEACON promotes Europe-wide exchanges among municipalities on climate protection. In this interview, Camille Serre, head of the project at adelphi, talks about the potential of BEACON and gives insights into the practice of trans-European cooperation.


Under the Paris climate agreement, Europe has committed itself to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. Even if climate policy objectives are decided on at national or international levels, much of the action needed to achieve them – from building renovation to sustainable mobility – is implemented at the local level. These established climate policy targets cannot be met without the involvement of local actors. 

As part of the recently launched "Bridging European and Local Climate Action (BEACON)" project, adelphi, together with Ecofys, the Independent Institute for Environmental Issues (UfU), Energy Cities and seven European partner organizations, aims to increase the acceptance and impact of local climate protection measures, especially in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. Last but not least, the cross-border exchange of experience should strengthen cohesion within the European Union (EU).

BEACON is funded under the European Climate Initiative (EUKI), which was set up by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) to promote the implementation and further development of EU climate policy. The initiative promotes dialogue, awareness raising and the exchange of good practices within Europe.

Camille Serre, head of cooperation with the municipalities participating in the project, explains in an interview how climate policy measures can make a concrete contribution to improving living conditions and talks about the practice of trans-European knowledge transfer.

BEACON aims to promote mutual learning in Europe on climate action. What is the potential of the project?

Camille Serre: Although climate agreements are concluded globally between nations, most of them are implemented locally. Many municipalities, however, lack the time and capacity to design and implement new measures. Others have tried and tested innovative approaches. Here, it can be extremely helpful to document successful practices and models, as well as the conditions for their success, and to facilitate an exchange of knowledge and ideas. With BEACON, we want to strengthen the dialogue between various municipalities in Europe – above all Germany, Greece, Portugal, Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic – and advise them on the design and implementation of climate policy measures. Our focus is mainly on small and medium-sized cities, which, unlike large cities, often do not have the opportunity to exchange knowledge with other European cities.

Is there a concrete example of how climate action can be promoted through an exchange?

Camille Serre: With BEACON, we are building on the experience adelphi has gained in the project "Polish-German cooperation on low-emission economy in cities." Right at the beginning of the project, the mayor of Sztum, a municipality in the north of Poland, became aware of a project on energy-efficient building refurbishment at district level (led by the cities of Herten and Gelsenkirchen) during a delegation trip. He was so enthusiastic about the approach that he decided to promote the energy-efficient renovation of single-family houses in Sztum at the district level as well. This could have been the end of the story of a successful exchange – but it wasn't. At a partnership meeting that we coordinated, Sztum's twin town Ritterhude (near Bremen) in turn became aware of the necessity and political relevance of energy-efficient urban renewal and then decided to more resolutely tackle the topic of a heating transition ("Wärmewende"). Ritterhude is currently preparing an application to promote an integrated neighbourhood redevelopment concept and management through the German Reconstruction Bank (KfW). In short, from Germany to Poland and back to Germany, an impetus was given which culminated in the development of two new projects. Both pursue the same goal, but the framework conditions and challenges are different in every city. Therefore, approaches are rarely transferred only 1:1. But as this example shows, sharing good ideas inspires others to become active as well.

How do the local residents benefit from climate policy measures?

Camille Serre: Energy-efficient renovations can stimulate the construction industry and thus create more jobs. Particularly in countries such as Greece, Portugal, but also Bulgaria and Romania, where the construction sector was hit hard by the 2008 economic crisis, there is great potential for employment promotion. By comparison, in the Czech Republic, a national subsidy program for thermal insulation of prefabricated housing between 2001 and 2010 led to the creation or retention of just under 60,000 jobs per year. During this period, only about a quarter of the 1.2 million prefabricated housing units in the Czech Republic were renovated. The potential for the labour market is therefore much greater. For Germany, it is estimated that energy efficiency measures could create around 130,000 jobs per year by 2020.

When properly implemented, thermal renovations can benefit low-income households. Successfully tested models already exist at the local level. A good example is the “Bielefeld climate bonus” (Bielefelder Klimabonus). The municipality of Bielefeld has extended the basis for the calculation of the maximum rent which is reimbursed to welfare recipients, to the energy quality of the apartment. This led to an increase in the reimbursement limit. Low-income people can now live in energy-efficient apartments and save on energy costs.

However, energy-efficient renovations are not the only option: even smaller, more accessible measures have positive effects both on the climate and on the households' wallet. The Energy Savings Check project "Stromsparcheck" installs energy-saving technologies in low-income households free of charge (for example, TV standby switches, refrigerator thermometers, energy-saving lamps, and LEDs), and provides tips on how to save energy and costs. Since 2008, around 300,000 households have been advised, saving on average between € 100 and € 250 per year. Other fields of action and recommendations for communities have recently been published by my colleagues here.

“People want to live in attractive and healthy communities. And that is an opportunity for climate action”

Throughout Europe, we need more such approaches that bring together climate protection and social sustainability. In Greece, for example, heating costs have become significantly more expensive due to rising taxes, which, in the context of austerity policies and rising poverty, means that an estimated 30% of households cannot heat their homes sufficiently. More and more households are using wood and even garbage to heat their homes, which is not only inefficient but also worsens urban air quality. The crisis is thus multi-dimensional: economic, social and ecological.

The synergy between climate action and clean air is also very relevant in Poland, where people still predominantly heat with coal. There, the fight against air pollution has become a national priority and currently the most important lever for climate protection. Benefits are therefore not only of financial nature: people want to live in attractive and healthy communities. And that is an opportunity for climate action.

How will the project strengthen cohesion in Europe?

Camille Serre: The problems of smaller towns and cities are often very similar: they are characterized by structural change, social change, economic change and strained local budgets. Jointly addressing these problems can therefore promote European integration. In this sense, climate action is also an answer to the national isolationism that we are seeing all over Europe.
At the same time, many of the ecological, social and economic innovative concepts emerge on the local level. Through exchange across national borders – as promoted under BEACON – these concepts can gradually find their way into national and, ultimately, European ambitious policies and measures. This is an important signal for a strong Europe!

What should a climate-friendly Europe look like by 2030?

Camille Serre: As far as policy-making is concerned, climate protection should be tackled in a more holistic and cross-sectoral manner, or in other words: the left hand should know what the right hand is doing. For example, it does not bring much to build bicycle lanes if new highways are being promoted at the same time or residential areas are still mostly planned around the private car. We need new mobility concepts that are not based on individual transport. We should promote the employment impact of climate change mitigation measures and highlight the social and health effects of climate change. A great deal of awareness-raising is still needed here. Ultimately, a climate-friendly Europe must be a Europe of solidarity: climate-friendly transformation processes can be initiated at an early stage, especially in structurally weak regions. This is a challenge that we want to tackle with BEACON.

Interested municipalities from Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Greece, and Portugal please apply here until July 13th to take part in the project. Municipalities from Germany can apply here.