28 April 2021

Racing toward a climate neutral Europe

Interview with Giorgia Rambelli, ICLEI Europe Coordinator, Climate Policy and Energy Governance

In the lead up to COP26, and with the European Green Deal’s ambitious target of reaching ‘climate neutrality’ by 2050 on the table, local leaders are gearing up to take bold climate action, with the support and guidance of a number of European and global initiatives.

Two such opportunities for local and regional leaders are the Race-to-Zero (RtZ) campaign, and a Covenant of Mayors initiative to encourage current and new signatories to Re-CoMmit with a view to be climate neutral by 2050. ICLEI supports both of these efforts, and has recently launched the ICLEI Climate Neutrality Framework – a methodology to support cities and regions on the path to net zero emissions and climate resilience.

How can leaders navigate these options? Are they mutually exclusive, or complimentary?

Giorgia Rambelli, ICLEI Europe’s Coordinator, Climate Policy & Energy Governance, is closely involved in each of these opportunities, and has answered our questions, providing advice and clarity to local authorities looking for practical solutions to the climate emergency.

To begin, can you clarify what each of these opportunities are exactly?

The Covenant of Mayors – Europe (or ‘Covenant Europe’) is a movement of cities and towns committed to support Europe’s journey to climate neutrality. It is a long-lasting initiative – not a campaign – for which signatories commit to implementing ambitious Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plans (SECAPs).

Original Covenant Europe commitments were initially made with targets to meet by 2020. In the past years local governments in Europe have been increasing their ambition in line with the EU policy targets for 2030, committing to reduce their emissions by 40% by 2030. Now, the Re-CoMit campaign supports existing and new signatories to now look further into the future. Specifically, signatory cities commit to reaching climate neutrality by 2050.

The Race to Zero (RtZ) is a global campaign, launched in the lead-up to the upcoming UNFCCC COP26. RtZ addresses local authorities, businesses, universities and investors, to help them accelerate science-based climate action to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040, or by 2050 at the latest.

Race to Zero has different ‘tracks’ for these different stakeholders. The Cities Race to Zero is designed to help cities meet that net zero target, and to give them access to the best available expertise along the way.

ICLEI is involved in both of these opportunities. We are a partner in the Global Covenant of Mayors, a Covenant Supporter, and part of a group of networks managing the Covenant Europe Office; in parallel, ICLEI is also a partner of the Race to Zero campaign. This puts us in a uniquely good position to help our Members to navigate these and other, similar, efforts.

You mentioned that the Covenant Europe aims for ‘climate neutrality’ by 2050, and Race to Zero targets ‘net zero carbon emissions’. What do these terms mean?

‘Net zero’ can be used in two ways: you have net zero carbon emissions (also known as carbon neutrality), or net zero greenhouse gas emissions (also known as climate neutrality).

Basically, carbon neutrality means reaching net zero CO2 emissions by reducing the amount of CO2 emitted as much as possible, and offsetting the rest via carbon sequestration. Climate neutrality is a similar concept, which refers to reaching net zero overall climate impacts from all greenhouse gas emissions through reducing and offsetting (see, e.g., IASS Potsdam, 2015).

Local Governments pursuing climate neutrality should look towards reaching an absolute net-zero, and GHG avoidance, in their own operations and across the community in all sectors, setting clear goals, and following a holistic and integrated approach that leads to sustainable development. ICLEI’s Climate Neutrality Framework goes into more detail on what climate neutrality means for local and regional governments, and I recommend that interested readers check it out.

Achieving net zero CO2 is part of achieving net zero GHG emissions, and puts one on the same path of climate neutrality. In other words, these goals are both in line with the same objective, and it wouldn’t be a problem for a city to join both the Race to Zero and Covenant Europe.

Readers should keep in mind though that some details of these definitions are under debate, particularly with respect to the role of carbon offsetting. Can carbon offsetting that is done at any time, over any time period all be considered as equally impactful with respect to net zero calculations? Are direct carbon sequestration and, in contrast, buying carbon credits, seen equally? Views on these questions can differ between organisations and sources.

It is good to hear that the RtZ and Covenant Europe efforts are aligned. Why are so many campaigns launching and ramping up at the same time?

This December, EU leaders from all Member States agreed to raise the EU’s 2030 Climate Target, which now aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030. This was not only needed to provide a realistic roadmap for the European Union’s ambition to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050, but also to align climate targets with the European Green Deal. And, just this month, the European Union reached an agreement on an EU Climate Law, which will legally enshrine Europe’s commitment to being climate neutral by 2050.

There is also the practical matter that, in the past, governments at all levels were setting climate goals with a view toward 2020. Now that 2020 has come and gone, we need to regroup, re-set climate targets, and re-align efforts across borders.

Local leaders are also recognising the need for urgent action. For some time now, European cities have been increasingly, formally declaring a ‘climate emergency’ – and boosting their climate ambitions accordingly. This trend began before the pandemic, and the COVID-19 crisis has served only to accentuate the local need for integrated climate action that addresses climate change mitigation, adaptation, and justice holistically. The timing of RtZ and Covenant Europe re-commitments coming out in parallel speaks to this dynamic.

Of course, the realities of the global climate emergency – and cities’ needs for assistance in meeting necessary climate neutrality goals – is also what led ICLEI to launch the Climate Neutrality Framework, calling on all local and regional governments to accelerate climate action now, while enhancing climate resilience across all sectors, in all systems and processes.

There are a number of sustainability networks, campaigns and initiatives for cities. How can cities choose between these, and why would busy city leaders join RtZ and/or recommit to the ambitious Covenant Europe initiative?

One of our jobs as a sustainability network is to make sure that similar efforts like these are streamlined. That way, city leaders can simply focus on implementing action. Race to Zero and the Covenant Europe are certainly not interchangeable, but they complement each other well. In fact, ICLEI has published an FAQ document and infographic to help cities understand the complementarities and differences between the two.

The reality is that the climate emergency is here, and the timeline to implement the actions needed to stay below 1.5°C global temperature rise is approaching or already behind us. The time to act is running through our fingers, while the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and exposed many urban vulnerabilities. Addressing air pollution levels, ensuring that energy transition is just, considering equitable access to urban nature, and implementing nature-based solutions and green spaces in cities have often been discussed; however, the pandemic has shown that these are not just a nice-to-have but a requirement.

Given this urgency, there is clearly a need for initiatives that help cities keep ambitions high, set targets, implement impactful actions, and monitor those. None of those steps are easy! Both the Race to Zero and Covenant Europe exist to help cities practically with defining, implementing and monitoring actions that will advance climate mitigation and prepare our communities to be resilient in the future. That is why I urge cities to join – this is an urgent problem and RtZ and the Covenant Europe exist to help you address it locally.

In concrete terms, Race to Zero gives cities access to tools and methodologies – including the ICLEI Climate Neutrality Framework – to set science-based midterm climate targets, and to choose ‘action pledges’ to implement to ensure they reach both that science-based midterm target and the long-term goal of carbon neutrality by 2040, or by 2050 at the latest.

By becoming a signatory to the Covenant Europe, cities commit to implementing Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plans (SECAPs) that lay out a roadmap for how they can reach climate neutrality by 2050 – in line with the EU target. Covenant Europe cities get support in this from ‘help desks’ and expert partners.

I strongly encourage cities interested in committing to the Covenant Europe, or to joining the RtZ (or both!), to check-out our FAQ document and infographic. They map out exactly how the two efforts support each other.

Could you briefly summarise some of those complementarities for us?

Sure. First, let’s consider the RtZ and Covenant Europe long-term targets. I already mentioned that carbon neutrality can be seen as one step toward climate neutrality. This means that working toward carbon neutrality (through Race to Zero) will bring you one step closer to reaching climate neutrality (the 2050 goal of Covenant Europe signatories).

Second, there are the pragmatic considerations. Covenant Europe signatories have to define certain actions when they map out their SECAPs. These actions can also be Race to Zero action pledges. Plus, both Covenant Europe and RtZ require regular reporting. Covenant Europe reports are automatically also considered valid for RtZ reporting, and cities that sign up to both are welcome to use the same reporting platform for both.

There is a lot to consider here. How is ICLEI able to support its Members in navigating and joining the campaigns, and following-up on their commitments?

We want to make sure our Members are informed, represented and can benefit from all these campaigns.

As a first step, I would once again point to the FAQ document and infographic that I mentioned above. ICLEI Europe also has a new video out, which overviews a number of similar initiatives that could be valuable for local governments.

As a network, we have established a partnership with the UNFCCC on the Race to Zero to make the process of joining and contributing as easy as possible for our Members. This includes, for example, ensuring that the ICLEI Climate Neutrality Framework is one of the RtZ official methodologies. I mention ICLEI’s partnerships, because they allow us to collaborate (behind the scenes) to make things as easy as possible for cities. For example, ICLEI has a longstanding cooperation with the WWF, whose One Planet City Challenge (OPCC) is aligned this year with the RtZ. Cities who enter the OPCC, will be provided guidance and an assessment regarding whether their climate targets and actions are aligned with the ambitions of the Race to Zero. We have also joined forces with other partner organisations to publish guidance material for cities on setting midterm, science-based climate targets.

For cities looking to accelerate the move to a sustainable future, there are plenty of opportunities to access support. Our staff is committed to supporting cities and providing targeted guidance to help you choose which campaigns to join.


More information on navigating these initiatives can be found here.

Cities can join the Race to Zero via the Cities Race to Zero portal, and can ReComit to climate action with the Covenant Europe here.