EU cities’ innovation and collaboration for urgent climate action

‘Continuing with business-as-usual means not staying within the agreed 1.5oC limit, not adapting to climate change, a global collapse in wildlife, and not meeting any of the other UN Sustainable Development Goals. Innovation is about creating a new way of doing business that gets us on track to a sustainable future’.

That’s the best explanation I’ve heard yet of why ‘innovation’ is so important – it’s about doing things differently, to address the problems we’ve created from the way our society and economy currently work.

It was a point well-made by Maria Rosaria Ceccarelli, Chief of the Trade Facilitation Section in the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Europe. Ms Ceccarelli was speaking at this week’s ‘Open Living Lab Days’ conference, which this year is focused on ‘scaling up’ innovation and action in cities – action on carbon reduction, climate resilience, health, and the many other pressing challenges for the EU, its citizens and businesses.

I was there on behalf of GrowGreen, because of the project’s focus on supporting EU cities to develop and implement nature-based solutions (or green infrastructure) strategies to help manage flood risk, adapt to rising temperatures, increase biodiversity, improve health, create jobs, attract businesses, and deliver many other benefits.

GrowGreen is bringing over £3m into Manchester, including for a demonstration project in West Gorton, to provide the city with an international best practice example of how to integrate high-quality green spaces into local communities. Great news for West Gorton residents, businesses and wildlife, but also for the many others who’ll feel the effects as Manchester’s Green Infrastructure Strategy continues to be rolled out (the award-wining strategy was originally launched in 2015). And the work continues with the IGNITION project, looking at innovative financing and delivery of natural climate solutions in the city.

These collaborative projects are a fundamental part of Manchester’s – and other cities’ – strategy to meet our climate change commitments. They bring necessary funding but also increase the pace of action. When urgent action is needed to stay within a 1.5oC rise in temperature and adapt to the changing climate, it makes sense to be able to learn from the best, to adopt and adapt their ideas and learn from their mistakes. We can then invest in even bigger programmes when it’s already been proven that the risks can be managed.

Next week Manchester will help kick-off another EU-funded climate change project, the ‘URBACT Zero Carbon Cities project’. The project is led by Manchester and is based on the city being one of the first in the world to formally adopt science-based carbon reduction targets (15m tonnes CO2 for 2018-2100, at least 13% year-on-year reductions, zero carbon by 2038). Participating will provide resources and expertise to continue the development of the city’s climate change action plan (the latest is here).

Three key principles will sit at the heart of this project: the two main points I made at this week’s conference, based on our experience to date from GrowGreen, and a third I heard from many others this week.

  • Cities as drivers for action
  • EU programmes are getting better and better at placing cities and their needs at their heart. My recommendation is that they continue with and strengthen this principle, including drawing on the URBACT approach, which structures projects around a network of cities working together on a common goal, with the support of technical expert partners.

  • Financially viable strategies and projects
  • Grant funding is a helpful way to kickstart the delivery of new strategies and projects, particularly where new technologies and/or business models are involved. However, an ongoing reliance on grant funding is one of the major constraints to delivering climate action at the rate and scale we need in our cities. Crowdfunding from the local community, private sector investment, social impact bonds and many others are now in the funding toolbox of the more innovative cities in the EU and beyond. We need more of these approaches, and fast, to ensure city climate change strategies are delivered at the pace needed.

  • Create opportunities to do things differently, take risks, get to the root of the problem… and get people excited!
  • There are lots of things wrapped up in here: governance, stakeholder involvement, co-design, risk-taking, etc. The point is about involving as many different stakeholders as possible in a deep, meaningful and extensive process to develop policies/strategies/projects. And whilst creating ownership important is important, it’s about much more. It’s about delving deeply into a problem or even several inter-linked problems, and taking the time to find a solution that delivers multiple benefits, which is unlikely initially to be obvious. It’s also about taking a subject outside of the usual decision-making structures, like our town halls. So, potentially a longer and more complex process than usual? Absolutely. Which is one of the reasons we need to excite people. To keep them on the journey, they need to be excited and inspired to be there.

Ensuring these three principles are put into practice in Manchester’s current EU-funded projects is one of the roles played by the Manchester Climate Change Agency, ensuring the city and its residents get optimal benefit from participating.

Jonny Sadler

Programme Director

Manchester Climate Change Agency


CO2 emissions
Manchester Climate Change Agency and the GrowGreen project are committed to understanding and managing the environmental impact of their activities. We are currently at the ‘understanding’ stage of this work, with details on how we will manage the impact to follow. The CO2 emissions from this trip were 384.2kg, based on the ICAO carbon calculator.