1. Environmental
  2. Climate change
September 21, 2015

How can municipal governments take action on climate change? Some lessons from Europe

By Kaj Fischer

While the financial support for climate action seems to be improving, resources to take effective measures at local level remain limited – even in some of the most advanced countries. Under these conditions, many countries are relying on ambitious local communities to implement climate activities at local levels, without waiting for change at national or global levels.

Comparing such initiatives from different countries reveals that such programmes often face very similar challenges – and reveals important lessons about how best to set up a pioneer programme.

The insights presented below are based on exchanges among practitioners and programme coordinators, organised by the project Climate Dialogue on behalf of the federal German environment ministry. Experts discussed examples from Sweden, Norway and Germany.

Taken together, these examples illustrate how forerunner communities can be connected to each other to share their experience; how they approach climate friendly, low-carbon development at local level; and how they’re addressing the challenges they encounter.

The Sustainable Communities Program, Sweden

In addition to general measures taken by the federal government – energy and carbon taxation, pollution limits and the Energy Planning Act – Sweden has introduced a pilot programme to test and identify solutions for all 290 Swedish municipalities. Of these, 37 highly ambitious communities were selected to implement cutting edge solutions to the challenges of sustainable development.

The programme has focused on two key areas: energy efficient spatial planning, and sustainable energy solutions for the industry. In total, it covers nine project areas, including defining new roles for energy companies, reducing car traffic, and introducing innovative lightning solutions.

In the key area of spatial planning, the scheme pursues a holistic and integrated approach. It brings together the federal departments of health and environmental protection, energy, planning and building, water and sewage, waste collection and waste management.

Content from our partners
The role of green bonds in financing the urban energy transition
The need to grow London's EV infrastructure at speed and scale
All eyes on net zero: How cities execute world-class emissions strategies

Focussing on energy as a stepping stone to achieving sustainability, the participating municipalities receive support from a variety of actors, such as the Swedish Energy Agency, other public authorities, and academia. Defining cooperation as a key factor for achieving sustainable development, key support measures for local authorities include networking activities, capacity building and learning materials such as handbooks.

Best practices, process knowledge and innovative solutions are derived from the experiences of these forerunner municipalities, and will be disseminated across all of Sweden and internationally.

Cities of the Future Program, Norway

A similar approach, yet with a slightly different angle, was taken by neighbouring Norway. The main goal of the Cities of the Future programme was to develop cities with low carbon footprint and adaptation strategies at the same time. Improving the physical urban environment was defined as a subsidiary goal.

Instigated in 2008, the programme included 13 cities and nine urban regions, representing approximately 50 per cent of the Norwegian population. The programme was supported by four federal ministries (environment, transport, energy, local government), the national association of employers, and by local and regional authorities. It focused on four main areas of action 1) land-use and transport 2) energy in buildings 3) consumption and waste, and 4) adaptation to climate change. The subsidiary goal of creating a good physical urban environment was added as fifth area in 2011.

The programme resulted in a number of successes. They included integrating action programmes in municipal planning procedures, reduced car traffic due to road pricing measures, a 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in new building types, the creation of significant knowledge and the implementation of sustainable public procurement procedures.

Masterplan 100% Climate Protection, Germany

Since 2012, 19 German municipalities – very diverse in size, location and administrative structure – have been receiving support for implementing solutions to achieve highly ambitious climate protection targets. These targets include a reduction of GHG emissions by 50 per cent, and reduced energy demand up to 95 per cent, until 2050, compared to 1990 levels.

These forerunner municipalities, called “Masterplan 100% Municipalities”, are encouraged to make use of all available support mechanisms and to explore innovative and individual pathways. Due to the diversity among the areas participating, it is expected that the project will yield results that illustrate different approaches that may be adopted by other municipalities throughout Germany.

During Phase I, masterplans were to be designed and adopted by local decision makers. These plans illustrate the pathway for the respective municipalities, including necessary technical and organisational measures. To support designing the plans, all municipalities were assisted by dedicated masterplan managers, funded through the German National Climate Initiative.

Phase I was completed in October 2014. Phase II saw the take up of implementation measures that include but are not limited to technical means. These measures include setting up long-term institutional structures for ongoing support of the transformation process, engaging the general public, and measuring and reporting initial results.

Considered a successful initiative, the programme has now been extended. The active masterplan municipalities can receive further support for two more years, while additional municipalities are encouraged to take part in the programme and start designing their own masterplans.


All the programmes show similar success factors and obstacles. For example, national support – both political and financial – is considered a main contributor to the success of pioneer programs, while a lack thereof can turn out as a major obstacle. Another critical factor is measuring and monitoring. While strict measurement is a vital part to these programs, it brings certain difficulties, like incoherent indicators, or the challenges of measuring “soft” factors.

Additionally, pioneer programmes face many similar challenges, regardless of national background. One major challenge is to connect the global issue of climate change to the local level. Another common issue is information gaps on various relevant topics such as knowledge on international networks, technical resources, monitoring techniques and more.

A widespread challenge, and maybe the most complex one, is dealing with diverse internal and external stakeholders. This is always difficult for administrations: nevertheless an integrated approach that incorporates top-down as well as bottom-up elements is required.

However, these challenges can be overcome if the programme is set up properly. A dual strategy is required: one that allows municipalities to build suitable institutional structures on the one hand, and provides key actors with a strong mandate and networking opportunities on the other.

To ensure successful implementation, experts and practitioners suggest including some of the following elements:

·       Introducing a sense of competition or challenge to programmes. That can be through financial reward schemes (British Columbia provides an interesting example how to implement cost-effective financial incentives to encourage action at local level in their Climate Action Charts), or through a benchmarking system to improve visibility and comparability of municipal efforts.

  • Establishing mandatory tasks for climate action as they can effectively encourage municipalities to start taking action.
  • Raising awareness of international networks among local governments and municipal administrations so that they can effectively use resources available there.

Kaj Fischer is a project manager at Berlin-based think tank Adelphi, currently working on the Climate-Dialogue programme.

Discussion of local climate action will continue during the International Conference on Climate Action, ICCA 2015, to be held on 1-2 October in Hannover.

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
Websites in our network