By Helen Traill, Andrew Cumbers and Neil Gray
Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow

This report explores the state of energy transition within Europe’s municipalities, drawing on existing academic and non-academic literature, and primary data collection carried out as part of the mPOWER project. It highlights the key role of municipal actors in the energy transition, although progress takes a wide range of forms including new forms of public ownership, utilising supra-national funding opportunities and increasing citizen participation.


Download the full report here.


Challenges exist in assessing quantitatively the extent of transition due to data limitations. Nevertheless our own data shows that ninety-two percent of municipalities in our survey were generating some of their own energy from renewable sources, and many were engaged in networks for the exchange of ideas and peer support in managing the transition. Municipalities particularly highlighted the usefulness of case studies from elsewhere to demonstrate what was possible at a local level. Best practice case studies however were often located in north and western Europe, raising questions about the uneven geographies of sustainability progress and the challenge of translating to new contexts in the south and east of Europe. The research also suggests that major challenges include: grasping windows of opportunity as they arise, having the local capacity to take advantage of such windows, and the need for coordinated action across all levels of government.

Summary

Municipalities as agents in sustainable transitions

  • Municipalities are increasingly perceived as key players in meeting the challenges of working towards a sustainable future. Municipalities vary a great deal in size and capacity so progress comes in many different forms. This includes developing new forms of public ownership and
    capacity, utilising supra-national funding opportunities, and attempting to democratise energy and increase citizen participation in transition initiatives.
  • As the layer of government closest to citizens, municipalities can play a critical role in facilitating energy transition, and in particular wider public engagement, but they require much greater resources, national and EU support, and decision-making power to realise this potential.
  • Europe-wide progress towards decarbonised energy is hard to assess as the appropriate data is often difficult to access, while publicly facing documents are often merely plans or are overcelebratory of a few iconic examples without robust evidence of wider systemic change.
  • Municipalities have highlighted their preference for examples to follow and demonstrate an inclination to learn from one another. Some good examples of best global practice do exist across the continent. However, there are limitations to the replicability of municipal successes, bound as they often are by national context and local conditions, including the impacts of slow to change organizational cultures and deeply embedded infrastructures.

The state of municipal transition

  • The vast majority of municipalities in our survey (92%) were generating some of their own energy from renewable sources, for example, using biomass alongside combined heat and power (CHP). Reducing energy need was also common through mechanisms such as public building retrofits. Progress was strongest where there was both municipal ownership and capacity.
  • Best practice case studies are often located in northern and western Europe, but this may be primarily due to historically uneven development including the impacts of the financial crash and experiences of austerity which have straitened capacity to fund transition in some municipalities across the continent. In particular, Nordic countries have benefited from sustained policy shifts away from oil and long-term planning and investment.

Blockages and opportunities in the sector

  • There is a great deal of political will at the municipal level to work towards decarbonisation. Large-scale international collaborations of cities and municipalities suggest this is a broad emerging pattern.
  • The biggest blockage to municipal transition is finance, although some innovations in this area (eg ESCOs, international collaboration) have had success. There are issues faced around the over-emphasis on novelty – with funding available for pilots but not the more sustained roll out of successful and proven initiatives.
  • Peer-learning across municipalities has had some success in regional knowledge sharing, eg in Slovenia, around the complicated models and processes involved in finance, allowing smaller municipalities to access European-level funding.
  • The continued framing of responses to the climate challenge through market-based solutions and private enterprise raises issues for municipal innovation. Municipalities may not have the capacity or understanding to create complicated economic models that demonstrate return on investment; and the EU’s emphasis on private investment limits municipalities’ ability to explore alternative models of ownership and citizen democracy in decarbonised energy provision.

Challenges for responding to the climate crisis

  • Given the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, there is a need for action towards decarbonisation across all levels of government. The municipal level can be a fruitful ground for innovation, but there is growing evidence that dominant policy agendas that are over-reliant on stimulating the private sector to meet the challenge through the market will not be a fast or deep enough approach.
  • The biggest challenge cited by municipalities and evident throughout the grey literature is the difficulty of securing funding for transitions. Particularly, this is related to the availability of national and international funding, which, along with political support, is intermittent rather than sustained, offering periodical windows of opportunity that municipalities have to seize.
  • Municipalities have set lots of often-ambitious targets for carbon neutrality and many have declared climate emergencies. A concern that arises from observers and our respondents in municipalities is whether there is capacity at municipal level to meet those targets.
  • Municipalities are working to address their often-limited capacity through networks of cities and regions working together to share best practice. This has been particularly valuable for municipalities (particularly in Southern and Eastern Europe) that lack supportive national environments for achieving energy transition.
  • Remunicipalisation (return to local public ownership) of key energy infrastructure and services have been an important means for some local authorities to facilitate a faster transition in the face of slow progress by private firms.

Download the full report here.