Delivering a sustainable and low carbon economy

© European Union / Tim De Backer

At the 7th Summit of the Regions and Cities in Bratislava last month – of which AG was in attendance – Vice-President of the European Commission with the responsibility of the Energy Union, Maroš Šefčovič spoke about the role of cities and regions in the transition towards a sustainable, low carbon economy…

Let me first of all congratulate the Committee of the Regions for having – once again – convened this Summit; a broad and very useful platform for sharing best ideas and practices at a European level. Indeed, I see in this audience representatives from EU institutions, like the European Commission, local leaders, investors and leaders of start-ups, and others.

We are here to talk about the role of cities and regions at a time when everything has the prefix ‘smart’; from ‘smartphones’ to ‘smart financing’ adding up to building the ‘smart cities’ of tomorrow.

Indeed, Europe is in the midst of a fundamental transition towards a sustainable, low-carbon economy and society. And for this transition to be successful, we need at least 3 elements to be in place: we need a convincing and appealing vision; we need a political framework within which we can act effectively and efficiently; and we need concrete pioneering projects that serve as an example to others. Let me go a bit deeper in these elements.

First, the vision. As Jeremy Rifkin eloquently asserted, the new Industrial Revolution is unfolding as we speak. Its key drivers are ‘digitisation’, Big Data, the ‘Internet of Things’, bringing together – in Jeremy’s words – the ‘Communication Internet, the Energy Internet and the Transportation and Logistic Internet’. We are moving towards a new collaborative economy, in which we enjoy a range of services and products without the need of owning them. We are embarking on a digital journey with new business models. And we are entering a period where ‘near zero marginal costs’ becomes the new economic ‘normal’ in more and more fields, from the entertainment industry to the energy sector.

This is also the vision we developed in the European Commission under the Energy Union Strategy. More than one year ago, when we presented the Energy Union Strategy we restated our commitment to move away from fossil fuels, old technologies and outdated business models, to innovative clean energy solutions, integrated with smart systems of mobility, ICT, waste etc. This is the future economic system that is genuinely sustainable, competitive and circular. I would add, this will be an economic model that surfs on the waves of digital democratisation. Look at the way we produce energy. Already now, in some member States, most of the electricity is being produced by active consumers, so-called “prosumers”. The new energy markets are becoming more and more decentralised, a trend that will continue, also in other economy sectors.

With this vision in mind, we are currently revising our European legislation. Together with several other Commissioners, we are taking a fresh look at our mobility system. In a couple of weeks, we will present our long-term vision on a mobility system that is low emission, more collaborative, more future-proof. After summer, we will present proposals on how we can become more energy-efficient and how we can make our buildings ‘smarter’. Before the end of the year, we will present a proposal on how we can make the energy market more fit for renewables. We will also present an Innovation Strategy, all of this in line with the vision I just set out. In other words, we know where we are heading to, and we now have to act fast.

Of course, we want to make sure that all our actions reinforce each other. That’s why we need a coherent framework, the second element I mentioned. Such a framework is by definition – and I think the Committee of the Regions will be very happy when I mention this – ‘multileveled’.

We need action at the global level. That’s why it is so important that we now have a common frame, the Paris Agreement, which I was proud to sign on behalf of the European Union last April in New York. We need action at the European level, as I just illustrated. We need action at the level of the Member States. And of course, we need action at the local or subnational regional level.

We have managed to take some decisive steps forward to create the right framework, both in Europe and globally.

In Europe, it is the Pact of Amsterdam, which has been endorsed by all Member States, that provides the overall framework. We, in the Commission, intend to follow up on its 3 core elements: better regulation, better access to finance and a better knowledge base. That’s why we intend to present, in October, a “One-Stop- Shop for urban areas”. It will ensure that information on European legislation that is relevant for cities and regions, on data as well as on financing instruments are just one click away. And let me in particular stress the importance of access to finance, since this is so high on today’s agenda. We have several important instruments, such as the European Structural Investment

Funds, the Juncker Investment Plan and other facilities such as Horizon 2020. But too often, these resources are fragmented. The One Stop Shop is a first step to address this.

But also at the global level, we now have a common framework. The Global Covenant of mayors which will ensure that cities can play their role together. Cities from all over the globe will now have one point of reference.

Now that we have the vision and the framework, let me turn to the third and last element: pioneering actions. What is the purpose of a vision and a framework if our citizens do not see the benefits in their daily life? So this is my main message today: let’s shift the discussion from the abstract to the concrete, from big policies to down-to-earth action.

In this panel, we heard how 2 concrete regions – Hautede-France and Rotterdam-The Hague – are rolling their sleeves to make the transition to a low-carbon economy and society visible and tangible. How they have had to overcome practical obstacles, financial challenges, and how important political will is in all this.

These pioneer projects can only be successful if local authorities and citizens are in the driver’s seat. If these projects have strong roots in the concrete local context and have strong local ownership. That is the true meaning of subsidiarity.

But this does not mean that other players, such as the European institutions, cannot facilitate. On the contrary, every week, many mayors contact me to see how Europe can be helpful.

The European Commission is certainly ready to do its part of the job. How?

First, I will use my Energy Union Tour next year not only to actively engage with Member States, but also to visit and showcase prime examples of cities and regions that are making a difference. It is more important than ever to exchange best practices. No city, no region has to re-invent the wheel. I therefore invite Member States to identify a city or region that can play such a pioneering role, and you – representatives of cities and regions – to show us what you are doing.

Second, we will keep this topic high on the political agenda, as unanimously asked by the Council just a couple of days ago. I hope, and I am confident, that the Slovak presidency, as well as subsequent Presidencies, will also do their utmost to also keep this on the Council’s agenda.

And thirdly, we will help where we can to support partnerships between cities that are willing to implement proven sustainable solutions. Partnerships between European cities, but equally, as I said, between European cities and cities outside Europe.

Ladies and gentlemen, by joining today, by sitting in this room – you are taking part of this very important journey.

Let me stop here and wish us all a very successful 7th European Summit of Regions and Cities, the 1st in my home country of Slovakia.

This is an edited version of a speech as delivered at the Summit –

Maroš Šefčovič

Vice-President responsible for the Energy Union

European Commission


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