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Harnessing the Potential of Energy Efficiency in City Decarbonisation Plans

By Julia Gubler

Harnessing the Potential of Energy Efficiency in City Decarbonisation Plans

As the EU moves towards net-zero emissions, cities have become key arenas of climate action. Even though cities cover only about 4% of the EU’s surface, they are home to 75% of EU citizens. Worldwide, over 65% of energy consumption and 70% greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to cities (European Commission, 2021). As such, urban governments increasingly consider climate change and sustainability to fall within their responsibilities. They have created networks, carried out studies, developed strategies, and in some cases, set timelines for achieving climate-neutrality. The EU tries to facilitate these efforts, among other through the EU Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy or the Horizon EU-sponsored Mission “100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030”. As more and more cities and municipalities develop their own pathways for decarbonisation, strategies and actions can have vastly different approaches and priorities, and vary in terms of scope, ambition and detail.

The EU recasting its Energy Efficiency Directive as part of the EU Green Deal (European Commission, 2019), which aims to give energy efficiency a more prominent role in policy design, is an occasion to look at how energy efficiency is incorporated into decarbonisation strategies of municipalities and cities. To what extent are energy efficiency considerations included in local climate action? Do cities and municipalities have dedicated targets for energy efficiency? Which processes are used to determine such targets and how are measures implemented and financed? What is the specific contribution of cities and municipalities to making energy efficiency a priority in the energy transition?

This article looks at a selection of climate and energy action plans from different cities across Europe. To highlight the role energy efficiency, including energy savings, can play in moving towards net-zero emissions, the cities selected form part of the Horizon EU Mission “100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030”. As such, it is reasonable to assume the cities selected count among the most ambitious in terms of climate action in Europe. Limiting the analysis to decarbonisation plans from 2015 or later, written in either English, German, French or Spanish[1], this article looks at decarbonisation plans from the following EU cities: Aarhus (DK), Aachen (DE), Bordeaux (FR), Brussels (BE), Dublin (IE), Dunkerque (FR), Glasgow (UK), La Louvière (BE), Münster (DE), Paris (FR), Sevilla (ES), The Hague (NL) and Valencia (ES). The strategies and action plans analysed were either retrieved from the Covenant of Mayors’ repository of local action plans (for those cities that are also members of the Covenant) or directly from their websites. After a quick overview of the literature on the decarbonising cities, the article highlights common aspects of the analysed strategies and action plans and points out good practices. The article finishes with policy recommendations on including energy efficiency in decarbonisation plans.

Cities as innovative spaces for climate action

Academic scholarship highlights how sub-national players, especially cities, advance decarbonisation in western societies (Gordon David J, 2020; Hadfield & Cook, 2019; Hsu et al., 2020). Cities do so often in spite of inadequate national or regional policies to address climate change mitigation and fossil fuel dependency (Bulkeley & Broto, 2013; Krause, 2012). Literature furthermore recognises the experimental nature of urban climate governance (Bulkeley et al., 2015; Shearmur & Poirier, 2017), for example in including citizens in climate policy (Ross et al., 2021) or in finding new ways to overcome financial constraints (Hadfield & Cook, 2019). However, cities also face important constraints: Oftentimes, cities are not in control of important sources of CO2 emissions, such as wider transport and energy systems, or related policy agendas (Hofstad et al., 2022), and suffer from a lack of coordination between national and sub-national climate policy (Hadfield & Cook, 2019; Krause, 2012). While academic literature has highlighted the role of experimentation in urban climate governance (Bulkeley & Broto, 2013; Shearmur & Poirier, 2017), or the effects of local and transnational networks on city climate action (Busch et al., 2018; Krause, 2012), not enough attention has been given to the role of energy efficiency in cities’ decarbonisation plans. McGuirk et al. (2014) show that with the reconceptualization of energy efficiency as a climate issue, new venues of agency open up for local urban governments. Looking at how cities integrate energy efficiency into their decarbonisation plans can contribute to showing how cities make use of this agency.

Energy efficiency in cities’ decarbonisation plans

Across the strategies and action plans analysed, the first thing that stands out is that not all decarbonisation strategies feature an overarching goal for energy efficiency improvements. While all of the analysed strategies mention energy efficiency in one way or another, some only do so for certain sectors, such as buildings or lighting. For example, the Aarhus Climate Action Plan mentions the goal of improving energy efficiency by 30% in industry (City of Aarhus, 2020, p. 30). Other strategies feature wider goals in terms of the reduction of energy consumption, which includes energy efficiency improvements, such as Paris (-35% energy consumption by 2030 (City of Paris, 2018, p. 16)) or Bordeaux (-40% energy consumption by 2050 (Bordeaux Métropole, 2016, p. 19)). Cities such as Dublin, Brussels, Dunkerque or Valencia do however mention a goal to improve energy efficiency in order to reach their overall climate goals (Ajuntament de València, 2017; City of Brussels, 2018; Communauté Urbaine de Dunkerque, 2015; Dublin City Council, 2019). Nonetheless, even when climate action plans mention such overarching goals, they are not necessarily reflected in the measures decarbonisation plans propose, and it can be unclear how exactly a city plans to implement them. For example, while Dunkerque mentions the goal to improve total energy efficiency by 27% by 2030, few parts of its action plan are actually dedicated to energy efficiency.

In terms of sectoral policies, energy efficiency measures are most often targeted at the building sector. Most cities mention facilitating building renovations in order to reduce energy consumption, often starting with communal buildings. For example, Aachen’s decarbonisation plan highlights the need to improve energy efficiency in communal buildings, as well as to provide incentive for businesses and households to invest in energy efficiency, for example through energy efficiency consultancy (Stadt Aachen, 2020). Similarly, Dublin aims to retrofit communal buildings and social housing for which the city is directly responsible (Dublin City Council, 2019, p. 57). Improving the energy efficiency of city lighting by replacing old lightbulbs with LEDs is also mentioned in several cities’ decarbonisation plans, such as Brussels (City of Brussels, 2018, p. 23), Dublin (Dublin City Council, 2019, p. 63) or La Louvière (Comune de La Louvière, 2019, p. 60). Some cities, such as Aarhus (City of Aarhus, 2020, p. 30) also specifically mention improving the energy efficiency of industry, especially industries still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Finally, several cities’ decarbonisation plans feature actions to raise awareness for energy efficiency among citizens. For example, The Hague offers “energy savings gift boxes” for low income households (The Hague, 2019, p. 20), while Brussels organises inter-school competitions on energy saving measures (City of Brussels, 2018, p. 41), and Valencia hosts “Climate and Energy Festivals”, focusing on energy efficiency among other (Ajuntament de València, 2017, p. 70).

However, in some sectors and areas of action, energy efficiency is only marginally addressed, if at all. This is notably the case for the transport sector, for which none of the strategies analysed formulate a clear goal of saving energy or improving energy efficiency. One of the few cities that does mention energy efficiency in the transport sector in its decarbonisation plan is Dublin, which highlights its efforts to “steadily replacing the fleet with newer, more fuel efficient vehicles, including electric vehicles” (Dublin City Council, 2019, p. 72). It is also interesting to point out that none of the strategies analysed mention improving the efficiency of energy production or conversion, major sources of energy losses. Likely, this is due to cities having marginal influence on these specific sectors. As Rice (2014) highlights, local governments often have little control over how carbon flows into or out of cities.

In sum, while energy efficiency is mentioned in all decarbonisation plans analysed for this article, most cities do not incorporate energy efficiency improvements into climate action in a systematic way: while energy efficiency plays a major role in the building sector, it is rarely mentioned in the context of transportation and mobility. In addition, cities’ decarbonisation strategies focus primarily on reducing final energy consumption, not addressing efficiency in energy production or transformation. The analysis also reveals the diversity and complexity of cities’ decarbonisation plans. There is no standardised format for decarbonisation strategies, and the level of detail of proposed measures can vary greatly. In addition, some cities develop separate energy action plans, that are only marginally incorporated or mentioned in overall decarbonisation strategies. Also, not all cities render their climate action plans public systematically, which is why it can be difficult to find the most current versions. Finally, even though it would be interesting to see how much cities invest in improving energy efficiency, financing details on energy efficiency specifically were difficult to find in decarbonisation strategies.

Good practices and policy recommendations

After this analysis of a selection of decarbonisation plans of some of the most ambitious European cities in terms of climate action, the following policy recommendations should be considered:

  1. Energy Efficiency First: Identify the potential for energy efficiency improvements first
  2. Consider energy efficiency in every sector and formulate clear targets
  3. Take into account and coordinate with national and EU-level policies
  4. Benefit from participation in transnational networks and initiatives

A first policy recommendation is the implementation of the EU’s “Energy Efficiency First” principle, a guiding principle which entails taking “utmost account of cost-efficient energy efficiency measures in shaping energy policy and making relevant investment decisions” (European Commission, n.d.). This principle should also guide cities when designing their decarbonisation strategies. When analysing their emissions reduction potential, cities should identify the potential for energy savings and efficiency improvements before considering other sources for reducing emissions. As an example of good practice, Bordeaux explicitly includes energy savings in modelling its emissions reduction scenario, and includes corresponding estimates of financial savings which can be re-invested in other decarbonisation measures. The identification of energy efficiency potential should be a first step in determining emissions reduction pathways.

A second policy recommendation entails considering energy efficiency in every sector addressed and formulating targets for improvements. This would also include clarifying the allocation of funding for measures on energy efficiency. The analysis of decarbonisation plans shows that in some sectors, energy efficiency is not sufficiently addressed. However, cities should think about how to improve energy efficiency and save energy in every sector. In the transport sector for example, energy efficiency requirements could be considered in the procurement of public transportation systems (i.e. bus fleets). In general, including energy efficiency considerations in every area, even if effects may be marginal, can have a significant overall impact.

Third, cities should seek to coordinate their decarbonisation measures with existing legislation and initiatives on a national and EU level. As mentioned in academic literature, cities have a limited scope of action when it comes to for example energy production or regulating large fossil fuel-based industries (Rice, 2014). While cities cannot necessarily change national or EU-level climate policy, they can be mindful of higher-level instruments and adapt their efforts accordingly. Dublin’s climate action plan is a good example: the plan considers its larger institutional context and focuses on “climate-proofing the areas for which it has direct responsibility” (Dublin City Council, 2019, p. 16). Beyond  that, Dublin will “support the implementation of the sectoral adaptation and mitigation plans” which exist on a national level (Dublin City Council, 2019, p. 16). By taking care to consider the larger regulatory environment, cities can leverage synergies and focus on designing measures for areas they are directly responsible for. 

Finally, literature has shown that it is beneficial for cities to participate in regional, national or transnational initiatives. Networks for example can be helpful for seeking technical advice, informing internal decision making processes and formulating emissions reductions goals (Busch et al., 2018). Beyond being members of the “100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030” Mission, most cities featured in this article are members of additional networks, such as the Covenant of Mayors, or the European Energy Award. The relevance of the European Energy Award for energy efficiency should be highlighted here: The award supports local governments in implementing energy efficiency and climate action, monitors the participants’ progress and provides a certification, which can be used for location marketing purposes. As such, participating in the European Energy Award can complement a cities’ decarbonisation plan.

Overall, cities play an increasingly important role for addressing climate change and moving towards a net-zero emissions world. Energy savings and improvements in energy efficiency can accelerate and facilitate the transition to a carbon-free society. This article however shows, that cities do not make full use of the benefits of energy efficiency for decarbonisation. Using the “Energy Efficiency First” principle as a guideline, cities should prioritise energy efficiency considerations across sectors, and rely on the existing regulatory framework as well as on dedicated networks. This way, cities could harness the full potential of energy efficiency for their decarbonisation pathways.


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[1] More precisely, this analysis is limited to strategies written in a language the author understands