Paving the Way for the Urban Energy Transition: Four Cities Prioritizing Civil Society Partnerships
An increasing number of transatlantic cities are setting ambitious climate goals that bank on the energy transition. Cities across Europe and the United States have used such goals as a guidepost to set priorities in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting buildings, and scaling renewable energies. While climate and energy goals set up a clear vision for where cities would like to be, the path to get there can be more challenging since the government cannot go it alone.
When it comes to the energy transition, the public, private, and non-profit sectors can often work in silos at the local level. They may connect with each other periodically, but in reality, they are often stuck in the day-to-day cycle of drawing up plans, pushing forward projects, and implementing pressing tasks in the short term. Stakeholders that are not working together may miss opportunities to respond to climate change urgency with holistic, innovative, and inclusive approaches. However strong partnerships and collaborative efforts can lead to supportive policy and expedient action towards city climate and energy transition goals. In other words, strong joint efforts can provide insights into the “how” of equitable energy transition success. Further, citizens may not be connected to such efforts if there is not a robust civil society sector that brings people (and consumers) into a very technical process. The Energy Allies Initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States is designed to connect the dots and align the efforts of the public sector and civil society in the energy transition.
Two U.S. cities and two European cities are embracing collaboration with civil society as well as with private and utility actors and the breaking down of silos. Charlotte, North Carolina, Cambridge Massachusetts, Heidelberg, Germany and Nantes, France are not only making stronger efforts to collaborate across sectors in their own city but are also connecting and fostering the exchange of ideas with each other. Even though they have different structures in place and governmental competences, each has developed unique climate and energy plans and implemented innovative projects, convenings, and collaborative efforts that work with a variety of stakeholders to push forward citizen-driven ideas on the energy transition.
Each of the four cities has placed an emphasis on collaborative partnerships that have helped them take further steps towards their climate and energy goals. However, there is a careful balance between advancing climate and energy goals and creating space for democratic process and collaboration. Laurent Comeliau, the director of the Energy Transition Roadmap for the Nantes Metropolis, suggests that cities need to prioritize both and find an equilibrium. In fact, in many ways, the need for energy efficiency and collaborative processes can work in conjunction. Without inclusive efforts, decision-makers can often face pushback from other stakeholders excluded from the process, which delays progress towards meeting the city’s climate and energy objectives. Collaborations across sectors can help keep the implementation of plans progressing and can hold stakeholders accountable. DeAndrea Salvador, founder and executive director of the Renewable Energy Transition Initiative in Charlotte, argues that collaborative efforts among civil society, government, and corporate entities can better utilize the strengths and weaknesses of the stakeholders at the table and create symbiotic relationships for the energy transition.
These open dialogues are allowing Energy Allies’ participants to consider collaborations with stakeholders that have been overlooked and to embrace innovative ideas that bring in civil society perspectives. Even some of the most progressive cities may cling to top-down approaches and vertical economic models that often make participating in the energy transition more difficult for local stakeholders. Not only is the involvement of civil society actors helping to push forward climate and energy agendas with innovative ideas but including non-governmental entities early in the process helps to ensure trust and acceptance of the process.
Bold policy moves to drive the energy transition cannot be successful if communities feel disengaged and disempowered. The focus of energy-transition strategies on addressing climate issues and also equitable community transformations is opening up opportunities for energy democracy. As the benchmark years of 2020, 2030, and 2050 approach, cities are looking not only to make progress towards their targets but also to accelerate this. The hastening of such efforts will need strengthened relationships across silos, sectors, and cities for smooth progress and success. We look to our cities for paving the way in prioritizing and valuing civil society input as the energy transitions advance into our near future.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.