How to Build the Energy Transition in European Cities: Lessons from URBACT

Antonio Borghi

By Antonio Borghi, on May 7th, 2013

> Read Antonio Borghi's articles

Since its establishment in 1990 Energy Cities provides advice to cities on how to improve their energy profile, at the same time making pressure at national and European level for coherent and stringent policy framework. This year the Annual rendez-vous focussed on ‘Building the Energy Transition‘.

The event was co-organised with the City of Växjö and the association of Swedish municipalities, counties and regions actively working to reduce CO2 emissions (Klimatkommunerna) in collaboration with Linnaeus University.

I was invited to bring the findings of the URBACT projects dealing with energy efficiency and those of the workstream Building energy efficiency in European cities to the Annual rendez-vous, which took place in Växjö, Sweden on the 24th-26th of April.

Now that all presentations, photos and even videos of the conference are online, I would like to summarize a few messages from the conference and the key points of my interventions.

A Few Days in Växjö: One of the Greenest Cities in Europe

vaxjo energy transition

Växjö has taken very seriously the article published in 2007 in the British newspaper Independent, in which it was defined as “Europe’s greenest city” where “even its power plant smells more like a sauna” . In fact the municipality of the 85.000 inhabitants city in the southern Swedish region of Småland started already in the early 90es its sustainability path, that brought to the adoption of the Agenda 21 strategy in 1999. That document was then replaced in 2006 by the Environmental Programme for City of Växjö, reviewed and re-confirmed in 2010.

In 2011 the city announced to have reduced CO2 emission per inhabitant by 41% from 1993. The next step is to reach a reduction of 55% by 2015 and ultimately to become fossil fuel free by 2030. For this reason Växjö was the ideal location for the annual meeting of the members of Energy Cities, the European association of local authorities inventing their energy future or, since a few days, the European Association for local authorities in energy transition.


How Can Cities Promote Energy Efficiency in the built environment?
borghi 2On the first day of the conference, right after the opening, I took part to the roundtable dedicated to EU priority number one: energy efficiency of buildings together with Caroline Simpson (Renovate Europe Campaign), Stephan Brandligt (City of Delft) and Ralf Schüle (Wuppertal Institute). The roundtable was moderated by Maria Wetterstrand, a very young but already very experienced Swedish politician.

As it happens when conferences are well organised I received a paper with the key points to be discussed a couple of weeks in advance so that I could prepare the contribution on time. However the tight framework and lively debate has made necessary to focus on just a few aspects.

Is energy efficiency priority number one for European cities?

Since its inception URBACT advocates for integrated approaches to urban policies. In fact, when dealing with energy efficiency at the last annual conference in Copenhagen we organised four parallel sessions dedicated to the key aspects of promoting energy efficiency in the built environment, which are:

  • Stimulating demand and qualifying offer, providing orientation in the market;
  • Tackling fuel poverty reducing the energy bill;
  • Providing sustainable finance to bridge the gap between initial investment and future return
  • Solving the conflict between heritage and energy efficiency with high quality design tools.

How can cities implement the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive from the European Commission?

It is well known that many countries face great difficulties with the implementation of the Energy performance of buildings Directive (EPBD). Working intensively with more than 500 cities, URBACT has the possibility to monitor their needs and potentials, channel them to the European policy making level and try to improve vertical governance processes. The experience within the LINKS project (Future-proof historic centres) has shown that prescription of severe energy performance standards has worked well to reduce consumption of new buildings. But now that the focus has shifted to the retrofitting of the existing stock a more flexible and open approach is needed.

What is your position as regards to the energy renovation rate of “3% buildings owned and occupied by central governments” included in the recently approved Energy Efficiency Directive?

This topic is a little away from the scope of work of URBACT cities so I expressed my view as architect, urban policy advisor and… European citizen. In my opinion this is a rather unclear prescription: how many buildings will be involved in each country? Which impact will this measure have? In which timeframe? It sounds like a compromise at the lowest possible level, produced by the common prejudice that getting energy efficient is a kind of punishment, and not something we should naturally strive for. Energy efficiency is not a deprivation but a smart adaptation to improve our lives! And the public sector should lead by example!

What are the results of the European regulations on Energy efficiency?
A good balance should be found between binding measures (the stick) and voluntary approaches (the carrot). The URBACT experience shows that it is key to promote voluntary approaches, such as the Covenant on Mayors, and to provide incentives and support to the municipalities on their own way towards energy transition. Binding measures should provide the right framework at European and national level, but experience shows that they will not be sufficient if local authorities are not willing to embrace the energy transition.

How can we guarantee reasonable a payback time for those who invest in energy efficiency?

Also this question is very complex and need a specific financial expertise, but there is something that should be made clear. When calculating the payback time we cannot only consider the short term economic benefit provided by the energy savings. A deep energy renovation of a building (or even better of a whole neighbourhood) provides a broad range of benefits that need to be taken into account. It increases the value of the asset prolonging its life span; it brings health benefits to the occupiers; it provides benefits to the neighbourhood improving its image and promoting healthier lifestyles; it contributes to reduction of CO2 emissions bringing benefit to the whole community; it creates local jobs and activates the local supply chain; it stimulates technological and social innovation and so on. Of course all these benefits are difficult to be quantified, but they need to be considered in the when financing a retrofitting scheme.

Cities of Tomorrow: Action Today!

As Maria Wetterstrand has underlined in her conclusions, cities and citizens should not wait for the politicians at national or European level to start transition to a low carbon economy. Decisions at the highest level are often just a compromise, the “lowest common denominator”.
The success of the city of Växjö, whose green economy is rapidly growing, attracting new enterprises and inhabitants, show that cities of tomorrow need action today!

walk energy transition


by Antonio Borghi, URBACT expert and workstream coordinator,


One Response to “How to Build the Energy Transition in European Cities: Lessons from URBACT”

  1. […] article has been edited by Ségoléne Pruvot and published first on the URBACT Blog. Photos by Mats […]

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