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Subnational climate action accelerates in the EU to drive down emissions

A recent report published by the New Climate Institute looked into the current landscape and emission reduction potential of subnational and non-state initiatives in Europe. The report found that the number of net-zero emissions pledges is increasing rapidly among individual actors, including cities, regions and companies, that can play an important role in climate action. However, it also sheds light on the challenges to measure the direct impact of these initiatives on greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions.

The Paris Agreement recognised subnational actors (cities and regions) and non-state actors (businesses, investors and civil society organisations) as key contributors to achieving its long-term temperature goal. Similarly, the European Climate Pact launched in December 2020 invited people, communities and organisations to participate in climate action and build a greener Europe. As many “bottom-up” initiatives are already in place it’s worth looking into the progress achieved so far.

Data shows that already in 2016, around 40 per cent of EU GHG emissions were covered by short- to mid-term targets (2020-2030) of individual actors, including cities, regions and companies.

The number of net-zero emissions pledges is increasing rapidly and a large share of targets is coming from cities. As of October 2020, European cities and regions with net-zero targets covered over 162 million people (36 per cent of the EU population).

Looking at the map of cities and regions pursuing net-zero emissions, we can see different levels of ambitions. Subnational actors in Sweden and Spain are frontrunners with net-zero targets covering more than 70 per cent of the countries’ population. Whereas, in the CEE region net-zero commitments are more moderate.

Map of cities and regions pursuing net-zero emissions, Source: New Climate Institute

Despite the growing number of net-zero targets, the report pointed out that these commitments should be treated with caution as implementation has yet to follow and some fundamental uncertainties must be clarified. For instance, it is often unclear what share of emissions and emission scopes are covered by the net-zero targets, net-zero emissions and carbon neutrality are frequently used interchangeably and actors may use carbon offsetting to reach their net-zero target.

The report also looked into the progress made by sub/non-state climate actors toward reaching their targets and goals. It found that while the direct impact on GHG emission reductions is challenging to measure, substantial outputs have been delivered by initiatives aiming for indirect contributions to emission reductions, and literature indicates that individual European cities have made good progress towards their 2020 targets.

Although sub/non-state actors could make significant contributions to GHG emission reductions the report highlighted that this mitigation potential cannot be isolated from national or EU-level climate ambitions and that the GHG emission reductions can only be realised in coordination with national and EU-level policies.

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