On June 25 and 26, no fewer than 450 mayors, city practitioners, national and regional representatives, and urban sustainability experts gathered in Valencia, Spain, for the third Cities Mission Conference 

Reunited in the 2024 EU Green Capital, the 112 Mission Cities focused their discussions on “Empowering Cities – the Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities Mission in Action”. The event, organised by the European Commission and NetZeroCities as part of the Valencia Cities Climate Week, represented a landmark in the journey towards climate neutrality.

Progress and Ambition

“It is exciting to see the progress cities are making in the quest for climate neutrality, and to have the opportunity to learn from each other, share best practices, and support each other”, said Patrick Child, Cities Mission Manager and Deputy-Director General for DG Environment at the European Commission, underscoring the importance of city leadership in driving climate action and achieving the ambitious goal of climate neutrality by 2030.

Two years into the Mission, cities have made huge strides, developing and reinforcing their plans to achieve climate neutrality. Over 30 cities have been awarded the EU Mission Label in recognition of their Climate City Contracts already, and many more are to follow in the coming months. As cities develop and implement innovative approaches in the face of climate change, the conference was an invaluable milestone to celebrate progress, share insights, and foster collaboration.

“In Valencia, sustainability is in our DNA”, said Mayor of Valencia and Conference host María José Catalá. “Today, we want to be ambitious again, to make a livable city prepared for the effects of climate change.”

©Valencia Innovation Capital

Bringing all stakeholders on board

The event was indeed a vibrant manifesto to the role of cities in climate action, acting at local level, closest to people’s needs. In the words of Moran Fernandez, Spanish State Secretary for the Environment,

“the current climate emergency must be tackled at city level with a strong commitment from the city administration and its citizens”.

To achieve climate goals and enable a fair transition, Mission Cities serve as pioneers, leading the way towards a sustainable future. But they can’t do it alone.

“We share the need to involve everyone, citizens and businesses” said Filipe Araújo, Vice-Mayor of Porto, Portugal, echoed by many other city representatives throughout the two-day conference.

We have been working on climate action for the past two decades, but for the first time, with the Cities Mission, we are involving other actors, bringing citizens and the private sector on board” said Aino Kulonen, Environmental coordinator for the city of Lahti, in Finland.

Explaining why it is critical to involve multiple stakeholders and in particular residents, Agnes Schönfelder, from Mannheim, Germany, stated:

We want to be a climate-neutral city, but also a sustainable, friendly city. Through the Mission, we want to make our city ideal for our citizens. […] The Mission Label is not for us, it is for all the actors that are taking action in the city. We need to innovate to make it together.”

©Valencia Innovation Capital

Collaboration with citizens and civil society, private sector, and between cities, was on all lips with inspiring examples from across the continent. In Valladolid, for example, major industries, banks, but also the local football club, all form part of a network of ambassadors, committed to decarbonising and spreading a sustainability message.

Complementing the conference, a side event “Unleashing a Research Agenda for the EU Mission Climate Neutral and Smart Cities” was organised in parallel by NetZeroCities to deep dive into the role of research in Mission work. Connecting researchers and city practitioners, building an overview of Mission Cities research related activities, and identifying priorities was the focus to define a research agenda supporting systemic transformation for climate neutrality.

Introducing the Climate City Capital Hub

The key highlight of the conference was the launch of the Climate City Capital Hub, an international finance resource to support cities in their journey towards climate neutrality. Cities committed to climate neutrality know what needs to be done and have identified climate actions that require funding, but often lack the financial capacities. The 33 Mission Cities awarded the Mission Label alone have already identified €114.1 billion to be budgeted for climate actions in their Climate City Contracts, showing a huge need to unlock the finance lever.

“It is great to see the EU Missions on Cities and on Adaptation to Climate Change come together and join forces. With the Climate City Capital Hub, we will enhance our support to trailblazing cities that chart the course to climate neutrality with their mitigation and adaptation plans.” said Iliana Ivanova, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth at the European Commission, when announcing the launch of the Capital Hub.

The Capital Hub, as part of the Cities Mission Platform managed by NetZeroCities, will provide cities with access to financial advice, technical assistance to make climate projects ‘investment ready’, as well as connections to public and private investors to turn plans into reality.

Some cities, like the city of Leuven in Belgium, are already getting ready. The city has identified 86 breakthrough projects from their Climate City Contract, to be pooled into a portfolio of projects to be funded. This would address an estimated 80% of the required CO2 reduction in the city.

Thomas Osdoba, NetZeroCities Director, commented on the new game changing resource the Capital Hub represents:

With the launch of the Climate City Capital Hub and our deepening collaboration with the European Investment Bank, there’s hope that this effort is one we’ll look back on 20 years from now with a real sense of legacy, one in which cities found a way to mobilise and deploy capital for a climate-resilient, sustainable, and just transition.

In a related major announcement, the EIB indicated it has earmarked a lending envelope of €2 billion dedicated to cities with the Cities Mission Label.

“These [€2 billion] will be used to invest in energy efficient buildings, district heating systems, renewable energy, sustainable mobility, urban renewal and regeneration, water and social infrastructure”, explained the President of the European Investment Bank Group, Nadia Calviño.

Calling on all levels of government

If finance is a key aspect of achieving climate neutrality, so are policies. Collaboration with other levels of government, in particular with national level, and between cities, was also emphasised. Participants stressed the need for cooperation between city governments, regional authorities, not only to fund projects but first and foremost to create coherent and effective climate policies.

According to Thomas Osdoba, “cities need effective, robust national support. Policies and capital work together, they interact with each other.”

Eline Vigre, from Stavanger, Norway explained: “We need the national level to say cities are important to reach net-zero, enabling us to take the responsibility to achieve the Green Deal goals.”

At the conference, national platforms citiES2030 (Spain) and Viable Cities (Sweden), issued a joint declaration on upscaling the EU Cities Mission, calling for strengthened support for urban climate transition. Also backed by the Romanian National Platform M100, the declaration illustrated the need for a common strategy on “scaling as the new normal”, calling upon EU decision-makers as well as national government representatives to support the Mission.

Joining forces

This declaration is just one of the ways cities join forces as part of the Mission. City-to-city collaboration is a core feature of Mission work and was also a key aspect of the event in Valencia.

“The worst barriers are working in silos. Use best practices, share knowledge from other cities, bring them to your own city”, advised Mayor Eckart Würzner from Heidelberg, Germany.

Peer-to-peer exchange sessions on topics as varied as positive energy districts, mobility, adaptation and nature, or urban design and planning, allowed for sharing experiences. As did ‘challenge sessions’ where city staff built solutions together with fellow municipal practitioners. Measuring the success of climate action, engaging Climate City Contract partners, local communities and stakeholders were some of the key challenges on the table.

Cities also had the opportunity to workshop during lab sessions, in particular to shape policy innovation, an important aspect to lift barriers standing on the way of accelerated climate action.

“After exchanging with other cities, I see we face similar challenges, but we are on the right path”, a city official said at the conference.

In that spirit of collaboration, the conference was also part of the broader Valencia Cities Climate Week, allowing participants to engage in additional events such as the European Urban Resilience Forum (EURESFO) and Energy Cities’ Annual Forum. This provided a holistic view of climate action efforts across Europe, encompassing both mitigation and adaptation efforts.

©Valencia Innovation Capital

Looking Ahead

The 2024 Cities Mission concluded on a high note, with a renewed commitment from cities to the pioneering spirit of the Mission. A commitment also reiterated from the side of the European Commission, during the conference closing plenary.

“The European Commission will continue to have a strong and sustained urban agenda” said Cities Mission Manager Patrick Child, also calling for continued connections with national governments, businesses and local stakeholders and for sustained creativity towards climate neutrality.

Looking ahead, the Cities Mission Conference will gather again next year in the vibrant city of Vilnius, Lithuania.

“I am honoured to host the next Cities Mission Conference in 2025, where we will be able to explore solutions and strategies for a sustainable future”, said Andrius Grigonis, Deputy Mayor of Vilnius.

Halfway to the 2030 climate neutrality goals for Mission Cities, this mid-decade conference promises to be a pivotal point in cities’ journey!

Please find the photos of the Cities Mission Conference 2024, here. We ask that any photos used be credited to ‘©NetZeroCities’.