Climate pacts: Harnessing the power of community in Europe
Transitioning to a green future is an enormous challenge that demands cooperation, engagement, and action at all levels. Achieving the Paris Agreement climate targets will require continued commitment from multiple stakeholder groups—from policymakers to businesses to individual citizens. Many different kinds of initiatives have been created in support of climate action, from bottom-up, grassroots and community movements to city and business alliances and government-led “climate pacts.”
Climate pacts bring together stakeholders involved in discussions and, more importantly, tangible actions around climate change. They aim to connect and incentivize communities, citizens, and organizations, and can provide an effective way to inspire ingenuity and promote momentum.
The European Climate Pact is one example. Launched by the European Commission as part of the European Green Deal, the alliance supports the EU on its way to becoming the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050. ICF has been providing support with strategic design, operations, and secretariat expertise.
Making a real difference in the here and now
Climate pacts have a particularly important role due to their convening power. Governments at all levels are looking at implementing their own versions; the urgency to act rises every day, and along with it, the need to get everyone on board.
The situation in the Ukraine has created an energy crisis that threatens to overshadow the ongoing climate crisis, just as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the climate further down on the agenda. The solutions to these challenges are linked by the need to move forward with a secure, sustainable, and affordable transition away from fossil fuels. The EU’s response to this current energy challenge—the REPowerEU plan—offers inventive methodologies that European countries can use to phase out their dependence on fossil fuel sources.
Pacts in action: Some early results
The Local Energy and Climate Pact (LEKP) in Flanders, Belgium shows how climate targets can be translated into concrete steps.
The region’s mayors agreed to introduce measures to ensure they are compliant with the 1.5-degree target set by the Paris Agreement. To achieve this, individual municipalities were brought in to reduce CO2 emissions by retrofitting existing infrastructure, among other measures.
The beauty of this pact is that it has been driven from the ground up at a local level—everyone is able to participate. Crucially, it translates ‘technical’ climate policy legislation into tangible, practical steps. For example, it commits to plant one tree per citizen, deliver 50 collective renovations for every 1,000 housing units, and provide one electric charging station for every 100 inhabitants. Of the 300 Flemish cities and municipalities in Belgium, 293 signed up at the launch in 2022—proving that change doesn’t need to come from above.
The City of London is a small, but influential, community within the heart of central London. Its Climate Action Strategy outlines activities being undertaken to hit net zero targets, build climate resilience, and champion sustainable growth.
As well as committing to net zero carbon emissions in its own operations by 2027, it promises to achieve the same commitment across its investments and supply chain by 2040. The London pact also pledges to reach net zero for the Square Mile of the City of London by 2040. To support these ambitions, they are investing £68m over the next six years.
The City of London Corporation has taken a participatory approach to their climate pact by inviting people to contribute ideas for the endeavors they would like to see implemented in their community.
Climate pacts can also strengthen how central and local governments can work together to achieve their targets. The Climate Pact in Luxembourg – which was first launched in 2012 and then redesigned in 2021—is a perfect example.
Local policymakers are responsible for initiatives that can have a big impact, from the way local land is used to mobility policies and waste management. If the local decision-makers are not coordinated, this leads to inconsistencies across the country. In Luxembourg, the Climate Pact has helped to build local capacity and promote a more coordinated approach.
Local governments are now being asked to commit to putting environment- and climate-related measures in place. These might be hiring a climate adviser, implementing an energy management system, and choosing a number of measures to enact. The national government then provides them with financial and technical assistance and environmental certification based on the European Energy Award, which determines how much of an annual subsidy they receive. This is a coordinated approach that combines local and national climate commitments, with all of Luxembourg’s 102 municipalities signing up. Change thus results from a combined top-down, bottom-up approach.
Why are these pacts so powerful?
They encourage participation. Getting the buy-in of citizens is vital to achieve results. Climate pacts have a participatory approach built in, leading to actionable steps.
Using a top-down approach, if a local government introduces a car-free zone in a municipality and people aren’t engaged in the decision-making process, the city might not have the broad acceptance of its citizens. Involving people in the planning and delivery process will lead to a better understanding of citizens’ needs and create ownership of the approach. In one example in Germany, a large project for the construction of a major train station in Stuttgart came to a halt because the participatory approach was missing in the process.
They transform global theory into local practice. One of the most significant psychological barriers to tackling the climate crisis is the sense that it’s an insurmountable global threat and that individual efforts will not make a difference.
The local climate pact commitments seen in the medieval city of Leuven in Flanders show how this can be overcome through local partnerships. Cultural and political organizations have worked together to pledge to become climate neutral by 2050. Citizens are participating in certain projects, such as redesigning public spaces. The success of the Leuven Pact shows how important the power of community is in tackling a challenge that requires both a systemic and societal response. Actions are consistent and visible, with an emphasis on local efforts that are achievable. Crucially, the Pact helps to reduce political and cultural polarization on climate issues.
They work on an emotional level, which leads to behavioral change. Climate pacts tap into something that is key to making people change their behaviors: emotional engagement. Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the book ‘Switch‘ explain how the key to real change of behavior lies in bringing together two independent systems within the brain—what they call ‘The Elephant’, our emotional side, and ‘The Rider’, our rational side. They argue that it’s important to appeal both to comparably little Rider, which is focused on planning and direction, and the massive Elephant, which provides energy and is the main decision-maker on when and where we decide to move. Engaging our emotional side is therefore critical to ‘moving the Elephant.’
Climate pacts do this very effectively. Positive, locally relevant involvement engages citizens emotionally, bolstering pride in communities. The environmental organization Rare uses this approach in practice with their Pride campaigns: they work with local leaders to influence a community’s relationship with the natural world, inspiring them to take pride in their unique species and habitats. They promote alternative practices that won’t harm the environment by creating a sense of belonging and ownership.
The real power of climate pacts is that their success brings different levels and segments of society together. When Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, attends the launch of the local climate pact in Flanders, and the Mayor of Leuven Bart Somers becomes a European Climate Pact Ambassador, a connection is made between local entities and the EU, setting an example for others.
Climate pacts aren’t the only way forward – many initiatives play a crucial role in mobilizing people to act:
- Young people are coming together to call for the world to respond and act.
- At a national level, nearly 2,000 municipal and provincial bodies and NGOs have come together as the Climate Alliance to drive change.
- On a global scale, the UN’s Race to Zero campaign brings together countries, business leaders, cities, regions, and investors to motivate efforts towards a more resilient zero carbon future.
These initiatives recognize that the transformation to a more sustainable future requires everyone to contribute, at every level of society. Individual actions alone are important and a good starting point, but won’t be enough to achieve the emission reductions needed. Systemic change is also required. Change must come from both above and below—this is where the beauty of movements such as these lies. They’re a way for everyone to demonstrate that they’re on board, inspiring others to do the same.