EU governments must do better in acknowledging local authorities’ role in climate action and Covid recovery

The EU Commission has stressed the important role of local authorities to the success of national energy and climate plans (NECPs) and recovery plans. But it seems that member states have not heeded this call. An Energy Cities’ report on the final NECPs finds a persistent lack of recognition towards local action by many EU countries. Moreover, a first assessment of the recovery plans drafting process also concludes that local authorities still remain on the sidelines.

As the NECPs move into the implementation phase amid the still raging Covid pandemic, local authorities are some of the key actors that will ensure that national energy and climate objectives are actually delivered. Furthermore, their contributions will be essential in driving a swift and inclusive recovery – not only to increase the resilience of our societies, but also to leverage resources in a way that respects planetary boundaries. 

With this in mind, did EU countries consider the key role of local authorities, as they finalised their NECPs and started to draw up their recovery plans? The draft NECPs had already set the wrong precedent: they mostly ignored the role of local authorities, as evidenced by Energy Cities’ previous analysis.

The majority of EU countries failed to integrate local authorities in their final NECPs

In its report on the final NECPs, Energy Cities conducted an in-depth assessment of all NECPs to check whether they: 

  • mentioned/endorsed local authorities’ actions and policies as strategic contributions to achieving national/EU objectives
  • mentioned/endorsed the critical role of key initiatives spearheaded by local authorities, such as the Covenant of Mayors
  • recognised local authorities’ key role across all aspects of the energy and climate transition, i.e. across all dimensions covered in the NECPs (decarbonisation, energy efficiency, energy market, energy security, research, innovation & competitiveness)

The assessment found that most EU member states fell short in fulfilling these three dimensions. Only 12 EU countries mentioned or endorsed local authorities’ actions and policies, while only 4 member states explicitly highlighted e.g. good practices of local governments in contributing to the energy and climate transition. Many NECPs also view the role of local authorities in a top-down manner, by merely referring to them as implementers of national laws or policies. 

Slightly improved recognition of the Covenant of Mayors 

10 EU countries mentioned the Covenant of Mayors initiative in their final NECPs: Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. The Covenant of Mayors is the world’s largest urban initiative for climate action, gathering over 10,000 signatory cities in Europe. Under the Covenant of Mayors, cities voluntarily commit to reducing their GHG emissions to match or even go beyond national and EU climate ambitions, through “Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plans” (SECAPs). Italy, for example, vowed to put a technical observatory in place to oversee the implementation of its plan, which would notably build on the contribution of Italian Covenant signatories’ SECAPs.

This is an improvement compared to the draft NECPs, where the Covenant of Mayors was highlighted only by 4 member states. 3 member states – Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg – highlighted the key role of local authorities in their final NECPs across the three mentioned dimensions. Luxembourg for example signalled its intent to continue and expand its successful climate pact with its municipalities, while Belgium and Ireland vowed to strengthen their collaboration with and technical and financial assistance to their local governments. 

Recommendations for the future update of the NECPs

Taking all this into account, EU member states and the EU Commission need to do better when governments update their plans in 2023/24 at the latest, as foreseen by the Governance Regulation. In particular, national governments should:

  • Build on existing good practices from other EU countries: member states should assign the local level equal importance as the national and regional levels for energy and climate policies
  • Use Covenant of Mayors’ SECAPs of local authorities as a compass for localising policies and making national policies more targeted
  • Consider to which extent local authorities can contribute to all areas of their NECPs, by systematising local authorities’ role in all areas (and not only in energy efficiency and decarbonisation pillars)

The EU Commission should also be more explicit about the key role that local authorities play in the NECP process. It should call on member states to better reflect e.g. local investments, SECAPs and local energy communities in their NECPs

Avoiding the shortcomings of the NECPs in the recovery plans

Member states should also draw on the lessons learned from the NECP process, in order to avoid the same shortcomings when drafting their recovery plans. The recovery plans can ensure a key role for local authorities in two main ways: national governments should consult local ones in the drafting process and they should allocate recovery funds directly to cities in critical areas such as renovation, community energy or e-mobility. However, so far many member states have barely consulted local authorities when drawing up their recovery plans. This in spite of the fact that they are obliged to do so according to the Aarhus Convention on public participation in environmental and climate policy decision-making. Moreover, many EU countries have allocated recovery funds to projects that will not benefit local authorities – even though in many Member States, they had their local (tax) revenues severely cut by the impacts of the Covid pandemic. 

National governments still have time to rectify these shortcomings  in their recovery plans - the plans are due to be submitted to the EU Commission in April. Climate action mostly happens at the local level. Consulting local authorities and allocating funds to their priorities can only help the countries emerge from the pandemic more resilient and sustainable and also to achieve their climate targets.