Going green

27/10/16

The European Green Cities Network’s (EGCN) Elsebeth Terkelsen talks about the sustainable urban environment in Europe

European Green Cities Network (EGCN) is a network of cities, organisations and companies focusing on contributing to the development of green cities and buildings in a sustainable Europe by working with innovation projects, implementation of best practice in planning and building projects, education and dissemination.

Portal asked the network’s managing director, Elsebeth Terkelsen, about the sustainable urban environment in Europe, including the role of her organisation – particularly the work being done via the RentalCal project.

How would you define a green city, and can you provide any best practice examples in Europe today?

While there is no official definition of a green city, there are many fantastic examples of cities which are working to improve the environment and decrease their CO2 emissions. For the European Green Cities Network, that is the definition.

The European Green Cities Network consists of 85 members from 18 countries, representing 51 different cities. The basic members are municipalities, organisations and companies that have participated in EU projects with EGCN. It is also possible to apply for membership, but we mainly use the network to continue the development of our work and new projects to promote sustainable cities and buildings throughout Europe.

To mention some examples from a common project – SUSREG, supported by the EU – without prioritising:

Copenhagen, Denmark: fossil-free not later than 2050 the strategic energy planning in Copenhagen has aimed at achieving a consensus among municipalities, energy supply companies, and other relevant stakeholders on the transition to a fossil-free region by no later than 2050. To achieve this objective in the most cost-efficient way, the stakeholders analysed a number of scenarios comprising various renewable energy supply options. The goal is to be achieved through the use of sustainable energy (wind, solar, biomass) – also for transportation – a cross-municipal investment in the new energy infrastructure, and a large-scale effort to improve the energy efficiency in existing buildings. The total costs for society would be of the same magnitude as those incurred by maintaining the supply using fossil fuels.

Brno Bronx, Czech Republic: sustainable regeneration of a socially impacted city district the so-called ‘Brno Bronx’ is part of two districts and is situated near Brno’s city centre. The total surface area covers 40ha, including the proposed Brno Creative Centre in a former prison. It is a mixed-use district, primarily consisting of multistorey residential buildings from the middle of the 20th Century. The municipal project for sustainable regeneration is targeting a complete upgrade of this socially impacted district through energy retrofitting, supply with district heating from a power plant provided with biomass, solar heating and photovoltaics (PV) on the roofs, a renovated traffic and parking system, streets and courtyards made friendly for inhabitants, and more green areas.

Treviso, Italy: rationalisation and energy efficiency of the industrial areas in recent years, Treviso has given increased attention to the reduction of energy consumption in order to achieve the objectives identified by Europe 2020. A proper energy policy has been developed, but, above all, the integration of municipal area planning with the Sustainable Energy Action Plans (SEAPs) and the awareness of the stakeholders working in the framework of energy issues at local level have been the main strategies.

To start the process, a pilot project has been carried out: the rationalisation and energy efficiency of the industrial areas. A campaign of free energy audits in the companies and the organisation of public meetings among entrepreneurs, local authorities and trade associations provided the possible actions for implementing the targeted reduction of energy consumption.

How would you assess EU initiatives around green cities such as the requirement that all new buildings be nearly zero energy by 2020 and the recent Green Infrastructure Strategy?

The challenges are enormous and the demand for nearly zero energy buildings is necessary. But it is especially in the existing building stock that we need action plans if we want to reach the 2050 goals for the reduction of CO2 emissions. In the Horizon 2020 framework programme, the EU is promoting ‘deep renovations’, and this is an important step. But we also need to look at the energy balance – supply and demand. How can the buildings contribute to the production of sustainable energy – that is, how can we include PV and solar heating in urban development?

Speaking of locally produced energy, the use of electric cars can also be promoted if we can manage to include locally produced energy. Both things are very important elements in the further development of green cities.

We also welcome the Green Infrastructure Strategy. In Denmark, we have suffered from severe rainfalls, including the so-called ‘1,000-year-rain’ on 2 July 2011, which flooded a large part of Copenhagen. This resulted in the government deciding that all municipalities needed to make climate plans so as to strengthen their resilience towards flooding. Luckily, it has proven to be a great idea because it has improved the green infrastructure and has created more liveable cities.

RentalCal, one of the EGCN’s current projects, has a specific focus on the rented housing sector, which is in danger of missing EU energy efficiency targets. What particular challenges does this sector face?

In the rental housing sector, the challenge typically centres on the fact that it is the owner who invests in energy efficiency, and the tenant who therefore profits from lower energy payments – the so-called ‘split incentive’. Therefore, the essential challenge for improving the attractiveness of investments within rental housing is the removal or mitigation of investment barriers such as this. Empirical evidence from European residential markets generally confirms that energy efficiency is capitalised into property prices – the green premium.

How might these problems best be overcome? Is it a question of better incentives, for instance, or would you like to see more member states adopt an approach similar to the UK’s Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards?

RentalCal provides some evidence that the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and corresponding member state legislation has had some effect towards providing more transparency in property markets and showing the negative effects of building-related greenhouse gas emissions.

However, there is no standardised methodology for the profitability calculation of refurbishment investments that could promote improving energy efficiency in the existing buildings. This is thus an important task for the RentalCal project – to develop a methodology and to show that investing in energy efficiency is an attractive proposition for investors and landlords seeking a competitive advantage and stable rental income, particularly in rental markets with higher vacancy rates.

What remains to be done to make sustainable urban housing a competitive alternative to traditional housing?

A very interesting study – also within the RentalCal project – has shown that energy-efficient rental properties tend to lease up more quickly than their non-efficient peers. Combined with the fact that energy efficiency is capitalised into property prices – the green premium – sustainable urban housing is already a competitive alternative to traditional housing. The challenge is then to make the knowledge known to the investors.

The development of green cities will naturally require the collaboration of a range of stakeholders, from governments and local authorities to architects, builders, landlords, tenants, technology manufacturers, and so on. Fortunately, the importance of cross-municipal and cross-sectorial consciousness and co-operation is growing. As the Danish example above shows, it has been realised in Copenhagen, where 29 municipalities co-operate on the Strategic Energy Plan.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the European Green Cities Network. Looking back, what do you consider its main achievements, and where will its priorities lie moving forwards?  

I don’t think that we can mention one or two projects as main achievements. But we are proud that we – for 20 years – have been working to improve the sustainable cities and buildings of Europe.

Looking forward, we aim to prioritise PV and mobility, virtual design and construction (VDC), using VDC as a planning tool, demo projects on smart cities, and the synergies between retrofitting, resilience and mobility.

Of course we would also like to strengthen the EGCN, so we welcome new members and new projects.

Elsebeth Terkelsen

The European Green Cities Network (EGCN)

http://europeangreencities.com/

This article first appeared in issue 12 of Horizon 2020 Projects: Portal, available here.

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