Heidelberg is a unique town in southern Germany. With many environmental awards up their sleeve, they have a reputation for being eager climate advocates. If this wow-factor wasn’t enough, the town is also situated in the valley of a mountain range, embedded in romantic architecture and has a jaw-dropping history.
In the day-to-day, Heidelberg’s municipal staff maintain activities that relate to the city’s universities, castles and youthful culture. And long-term, the administration has just signed up for a great challenge too.
The work has already begun. Heidelberg is a C40 city and in 2022, it joined the EU Mission to become one of the 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030. We got a moment to talk with the Mayor, Prof. Dr. Eckart Würzner, about what it means for Heidelberg.
Why Heidelberg joined
Joining the EU Mission is, in summary: a huge opportunity. For the Mayor of Heidelberg, the rationale to join the mission is a chance to make the most of the role of cities, the importance of vision and the chance to be working on a bigger scale.
The bigger scale “The climate is interconnected. That’s why we can think on a bigger scale, and more strategically. One thing is clear: that we only have a chance if we work together. Climate action can be done between public and private, globally and regionally. Whether in the Covenant of Mayors, C40, the United Nations or the European Union.”
The mutual vision “We want to make sure to contribute to a vision for a brighter future in every way possible. And having a mutual vision has concrete benefits. It helps with financing – and therefore with implementation. The world needs a clear message: we can achieve our goals.“
The city coalition “With cities aiming higher than national standards, it is only natural that it is the cities that lead the way in Europe. It was with great satisfaction that Heidelberg received the news that the EU Commission focused on cities in this historical climate project.”
The challenges While the Mayor looks positively at the opportunity, there are challenges on the horizon too. The biggest problems across cities are financing and regulations. Sometimes separate, sometimes in combination.
Bureaucracy can be a major reason for slowing down action and losing momentum. Some projects can take years to get off the ground. The Mayor points at a need for a shift in the financial and regulatory systems, and pushes for innovative solutions, ‘given the dire situation we are in.’ Could key projects be co-financed by untraditional actors? Or could wind and solar be seen as exceptions to some rules?
Almost 85% of the EU population will live in cities in 2050. For climate, ‘It’s all about the cities.’ But at the end of the day, municipalities are not the regulators. That is why they need the support of regulators and financial institutions, the Mayor adds. The EU Mission is extremely important for these reasons.
‘Magic can happen.’ the Mayor says, when renewable energy, finance and regulations work together. He shares examples where countries have ‘really gotten the legal frameworks right.’ In Denmark, for instance, ‘everything is prepared for heating networks to run on renewables and circular energy. This could happen in the rest of Europe too.‘
Especially in 2022, Europeans have gotten a more intimate understanding of how dependent we are on energy – and each other. Against this backdrop the Mayor foresees a big push in this field.
When embarking on the EU Mission journey to reach these ambitious goals, the city had to think hard about its strategy. They decided to take their planning to the next level with ClimateOS. This way, they could digitalize and provide open access to the entire transition. They can now gather all stakeholders on the same page in real time, and calculate not only emissions but also crunch financial data to make the best investment decisions long-term.
The 112 cities across Europe will also act as experimentation and innovation hubs for others to follow, to enable all European cities to become climate-neutral by 2050. Despite the EU Mission seeming like a long-term project, the process must be started already today. When asked about the next steps, the Mayor of Heidelberg has a clear idea.
Short-term deadlines “Start with small-and medium term action targets. Make a priority plan. Focus on short-term decisions and more concrete internal and external communication about action.“
Invest outside the box “Not every project or investment that can decrease your emissions need to happen within the city border, for instance. For green energy, you might want to use the municipal territory for local agriculture instead. Think outside the box. You could outsource your energy investments for instance, while still accessing the supply.“
Interact with citizens “By publishing a visualization of the Climate Action Plan in ClimateOS, city-wide actors can get on the same page and shape the mutual priorities in Heidelberg. Dialogue with citizens and stakeholders is what gets a city to carbon neutrality.”
When the Mayor reflects on Heidelberg’s position as a role model in climate action, he mentions the city’s universities. These are where the knowledge is made. And without knowledge and innovation, we’re not getting far in climate action. That is a big reason for choosing to work with ClimateOS. Evidence-based and co-owned overviews matter.
With 8 years to go until a climate neutral 2030, there is no time to waste. Mayor, Prof. Dr. Eckart Würzner knows it won’t be easy. But he knows that thinking big can get us there.