We have interviewed Markku Markkula, First Vice President of the European Committee of the Regions and Covenant of Mayors Ambassador for the June/July issue of the European Covenant newsletter .
The Interview can be found in all EU languages under the following links:
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Thanks to your initiative, several Finnish municipalities and the Vaasa region have recently committed to the 2030 framework of the European Covenant of Mayors. What are the main drivers for local and regional governments in Finland to engage in the Covenant initiative?
In recent years, we have had in Finland several initiatives to wake up, encourage and support municipalities and also regions to take actions in tackling climate change. General awareness among citizens is now much higher, and in political debates, the main question is now HOW? Not just why.
The City Councils in several large cities – large in Finnish scale, i.e. a few hundred thousand inhabitants each – have made their strategic plans to be carbon neutral by 2035 or 2040, among them Espoo by 2030 and Helsinki by 2035. In addition, several small municipalities have been forerunners in real life activities, and now I work to get them to join also the Covenant of Mayors movement. The Regional Council of the most populated region – Helsinki Region with 1.6 million inhabitants – made a decision last December to reach carbon neutrality already by 2035. Northern Karelia has its target to be carbon neutral already by 2020. All these are working with their action plans and roadmaps.
Everywhere the key seems to be the strong political commitment by all major parties. Industry wants to increase its global competitiveness and image by being active: new innovative actions are in the pipeline. However, everything is based on public awareness and engagement – this is our joint effort to save the planet for the future generations.
The European Committee of the Regions has been a longstanding supporter of the Covenant of Mayors in Europe. More than 30 of its members have become ambassadors for the initiative. What role can they take in profiling and embedding the initiative further in EU climate and energy policies?
Let me take a good example: Last July, as the opening event of the Estonian EU Presidency, we had in Tallinn a joint event on new environmental solutions. We focused especially on eco-innovations. We, the Committee of the Regions Ambassadors, want to highlight this development on real life practice and showcase what kind of solutions are being co-created in different parts of Europe.
Let me take another example on the EU presidency level. In the second half of 2019, Finland will highlight digital platforms and artificial intelligence integrated to circular economy, clean tech and all four dimensions of sustainable development: economic, ecologic, social and cultural. On all these, cities and city driven regions are the enablers of collaboration towards huge improvements. What I see essential is the progress in implementing the recent SET plan development: strategic energy technologies. My own city Espoo – where I am the chair of the City Board – is an excellent forerunner in this. Two years ago, based on a Dutch university study, Espoo was rewarded as the most sustainable city in Europe.
We continue our commitment on sustainability with our collaborators. Industry involvement goes hand-in-hand with the city’s action plan being the evidence of the crucial importance of open innovation collaboration. Fortum – the biggest energy company in Scandinavia – has its head-office in Espoo. They and the city have challenged the other companies for open innovation collaboration to reach the carbon neutrality targets.
The EU still has a long way to go to deliver on its commitments to the Paris Agreement. What can the European Covenant community contribute to support the Union in plugging the gap?
We need to operate on all possible levels. The EU’s new roadmap on 2050 low-carbon economy is under planning and the European Council has invited the Commission to present it by the first quarter of 2019. There are expectations that the new emission reduction objective may 95% or even 100%. But, I want to stress that this will help only a bit.
There has not been enough concrete action to stop the negative trend on climate change. It is time for the EU to step up and finance showcasing the new role of cities in speeding up the implementation. My recommendation is that the Covenant community selects maybe ten pioneering cities or regions that have defined and started implementing ambitious actions with their local industry and universities – focusing especially what benefits the local collaboration and citizen participation can bring.
One crucial element should be smart & clean: how the new knowledge is being used and what are the lessons learnt? The desired future can only be invented by increasing the awareness and commitment to act.
Currently, the next budget of the EU for the period 2021-2027 is being debated across Europe. How can European funding support the transition of Covenant signatories towards becoming fully sustainable, vibrant and resilient territories?
We, the Committee of the Regions, have urged the need to have climate and sustainability issues as a cross-cutting trend across all EU funding programmes. Minimum allocation targets for climate should be agreed in the EU budget trialogue process showing a strong commitment by all Member States, thus convincing cities and city driven regions that there exists a huge portfolio of potential activities to be implemented with their industry, universities, NGOs and all others.
The Committee of the Regions stresses and I fully agree that Europe needs an extensive renewed cohesion financing for all regions. The criteria for this financing should challenge regions to form strong local public-private-people alliances and European partnerships to take the latest science evidenced knowledge and good practices in effective innovative use throughout Europe, the targets being economic transformation towards sustainable growth – not any kind of growth.
EU cohesion financing can and should be a catalyzer for cities and city driven regions to become more innovative in creating synergies between different financing instruments. Digitalized platform economy integrated with entrepreneurial mindset will be a major move in experimenting, piloting, rapid prototyping and scaling up the new solutions in tackling grand societal challenges.