1. Built environment
March 1, 2022

Leuven’s journey to becoming carbon-neutral

The European Capital of Innovation 2020 is striving to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

By Lizzie Waymouth

Home to Belgium’s largest university, some of the country’s major industries, and a variety of NGOs and grassroots organisations, Leuven is a city with a growing population. Located 30km from the capital of Brussels, Leuven is supported by a local government intent on uniting citizens behind a shared goal of better living for all, the city is embarking on a journey to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

The city of Leuven: on a journey to be carbon-neutral by 2050. (Photo by Tim Buelens)

And, while there’s still progress to be made, Leuven has already gained international recognition for its work to cut carbon emissions and be carbon-neutral, with a list of accolades including Most Sustainable Belgian Municipality in 2013, the Belgian Environment and Energy Award in 2014 and Belgium’s number one car-sharing city. More recently, Leuven was appointed the European Capital of Innovation in 2020, recognised for being a “mission-driven city” and “mainstreaming innovation into the urban process”. Leuven was also awarded the European Green Leaf in 2018, with particular praise given to its mobility and waste-water programmes. 

This wouldn’t have been possible without the backing of Leuven 2030, a non-profit organisation created in 2013 when 60 founding members gathered to unite sustainability goals that had previously been “scattered” and lacked clear direction. Now, with more than 600 members, it is accelerating the city’s ongoing efforts.

In May 2011, then-mayor Louis Tobback signed the European Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, a declaration of intent to make the city climate-neutral, setting the scene for what has been more than a decade of progress towards a shared goal of a better, carbon-neutral Leuven. A goal that has since been handed over to the new mayor, Mohamed Ridouani, after he was elected in 2019. 

“[Leuven 2030] led to not only a much more impactful approach to climate policy, with clear results, but also created a new narrative in Leuven and a new kind of culture of governance,” says Ridouani. He calls this “a radical participation approach, where everyone feels involved, where people feel that they are doing something that is meaningful and they contribute to their city”.

Leuven Mayor Mohamed Ridouani. (Photo courtesy of Leuven)

Ridouani is keen to stress that Leuven 2030 is “not a network or an NGO like any other”; instead, it is “quite unique in its form because it’s somehow a new governance model, where all layers of our local society are gathered together in a systemic collaboration […] Any citizens, any company, organisation, or knowledge institution in Leuven can become a member.”

Leuven 2030: Carbon-neutral aspirations

According to Ridouani, Leuven 2030 operates with a belief that everyone should be able to participate in the way their city is run, and that by “closing the gaps” in society – whether that is between citizens and government or between people and their peers in general – there will be greater trust and well-being. Part of closing these gaps, in his view, is “giving people a voice, making sure they can contribute at their level what they can do or what they wish to do, and create this larger sense of doing things together.”

This is reflected in the organisation’s motto – ‘innovate for the better and for all’. “For the better, that’s clear, and for all means inclusiveness is important,” Ridouani says. Leuven 2030 has sought to ensure that all sections of society are represented across its general assembly and board of directors. 

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Leuven 2030 led to not only a much more impactful approach to climate policy, with clear results, but also created a new narrative in Leuven.

Leuven Mayor Mohamed Ridouani

As Katrien Rycken, director of Leuven 2030, explains, while major organisations in the city such as KU Leuven, KBC, AB Inbev and Eandis play an important role, so do smaller groups and charities; for example, the most recent elections to the 18-seat board of directors brought to the table “three people that represent citizens in poverty and in vulnerable positions”, who Rycken says have helped to “bring in perspectives that are crucial if you want to go for a social justice and climate transition”. She adds that the organisation has also “welcomed a 16-year-old… so a young voice is now part of this group that is developing strategy”.

Ridouani admits that there were difficulties at first due to conflicts of interest – unavoidable when so many different sections of society are brought together. However, he says that “over the years this has created a huge dynamic not only in terms of results, but also in terms of [creating] a new way of organising participation”. 

Notable results include the amount of CO2 created by households falling by 9% between 2010 and 2017, even though the population rose during this period. The organisation has also sparked the creation of campaigns such as LEUVEN (Lowering Energy Use Via an Extraordinary Network), a partnership of companies, schools and residential homes investing €40m to improve the energy efficiency of public buildings, which is expected to deliver a reduction of 7,000t of CO2 emissions per year; and LICHT Leuven, a partnership between the city, Leuven 2030 and Ecopower to install renewable energy in businesses and communities. 

Car traffic has been pushed out of the city centre. (Photo by Karl Bruninx)

Rycken and Ridouani are also championing the city’s new circulation plan, introduced in 2016, which pushed out car traffic from the city centre and redesigned public spaces for pedestrians and cyclists to utilise. The idea came from Leuven 2030, and the support of the organisation and its partners meant there was already considerable backing for the plan, which was an integral factor in its success. In the four years since the plan launched, the number of cyclists has risen by 40%. 

This is a key example of involving citizens in policymaking, Rycken explains, and points out that the city invited residents to take a 12km bicycle tour of the city centre wearing air quality monitors before the introduction of the circulation plan and one year after, so that people can see first-hand how this has benefitted their lives, “to help citizens grow more aware of what this brings for them daily”. 

The organisation is about more than just achieving carbon neutrality, it’s about “putting systems in place for social collaboration”, according to Ridouani. Rycken adds that “in our narrative, we are not always talking about climate and carbon emissions and reductions, sometimes we leave out this type of vocabulary and just talk about health and well-being, which is the ultimate goal of course”. She believes that this focus on a “certain positive future that is young, [and] gives hope and appetite” rather than always “pushing the climate issue up front”.

Finding space in Leuven

Leuven, and its carbon-neutral drive towards cutting emissions and improving quality of life, has attracted attention and drawn more people to want to settle there. As a result, the city’s biggest challenge is its continued growth, Ridouani says. “This is a beautiful thing, of course,” he says, “but there is one big issue and that’s space.” 

“We need places for research, for innovation, science, student homes, spaces for companies, and this needs to go together with our sustainability ambitions, so the growth should be sustainable and respect the ecological barriers that we need to take into account.” 

Ridouani believes that the solution to this is “slow planning, fast building”, and points out that Leuven 2030 is embedded into the city’s basic spatial structural plan, ensuring that sustainability is never ignored. 

Leuven has a young and diverse population. (Photo by Milo Profi)

Retrofitting buildings to reduce their energy costs and reliance on fossil fuels is also an important part of the Leuven 2030 roadmap. In 2017, Leuven 2030 was successful in attracting €1.5m in funding from the European Investment Bank to finance preparatory studies into energy efficiency retrofitting. 

As Rycken explains, the organisation secured this funding because “strong pillars in our community were willing and even enthusiastic about bringing in their investment portfolio together… enabling us to talk about a collective investment of €37m”. She’s talking about the 24 partners, including IMEC and KU Leuven, that combined the investment portfolio of their buildings to make this possible. The financing was mainly used to support smaller groups within the community, such as schools, youth institutions, care homes and social housing companies, to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings. 

“This is a clear illustration of how this unique governance model is contributing to the work in the field. It’s about trusting, being willing and seeing that collectively we will move forward in a better way than individually, and I think this project is another illustration of that belief and that conviction,” Rycken says.

These goals have not just had an impact on the people of Leuven. The city’s multiple awards and recognition as a European Capital of Innovation have made it a “blueprint city” for not only tackling climate change but also reducing inequality and, more recently, combatting the spread of Covid-19, Ridouani says. “We see that [what is being done in Leuven] is being picked up internationally, so there’s a lot of interest in what we do and we’re happy to share that – it’s open source in my opinion.” 

Leuven 2030 is also collaborating with other cities in Belgium and across Europe to share knowledge and inspire innovation. “We have understood from the very beginning that we wanted to take up responsibility towards the urban climate challenge that reaches far beyond the boundaries of Leuven,” Rycken says. “It is not just about being a solo player, it’s about taking others along [on the journey].”

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