communication works

Energy Democracy

The Rise of the Cities

It didn’t come as a surprise that the United States would pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. But the big surprise was: The international community didn’t seem to be alarmed. How is that possible? Sabine Froning of Communication Works explains why the struggle for global climate protection is no longer driven by national governments but by citizens.

8. June 2017

When the historical deal was to be struck in Paris in December 2015, the international community was looking at the United States and president Barack Obama. Would he or would he not take the lead in pushing the climate agenda? He did. And the deal was done.

Today, 18 months and a new US president later, there are only three nations in the world that have not signed or renounced their signature under the Climate Treaty: Syria, Nicaragua and the United States of America. Senior advisors to the Trump administration proclaim with regard to the Paris Agreement in the New York Times: ”The world is not a community!” However, the real world community doesn’t seem overly alarmed: governments, mayors, scientists, NGOs, businesses criticize Trump. And they move on. How can that be?

For one: it had already become clear during the Paris conference that global investors seem to have realized that climate protection is an economic motor, not an obstacle. Secondly, technological innovation and cost reductions do not only make renewable energies the most climate-friendly solution, but increasingly even the cheapest. In other words: with or without Trump, there will be no renaissance of coal. Not in China, not in Europe, not even in the United States – despite the federal government’s decision. Why live in the 19th century, if you can live in the 21st?


Cities take the lead

Thirdly, and not least in the US, regions and cities are stepping up their climate efforts. As a reaction to Donald Trump’s withdrawal from international climate cooperation, city halls all over the world – from Boston to Sydney – were lit up in green to show their solidarity and commitment to the Paris climate targets. Present and former city leaders like Heidelberg’s Eckart Würzner, President of the network ”Energy Cities”, Paris’ Anne Hidalgo, President of the worldwide city network ”C40”, or New York’s Michael Bloomberg, who just co-authored a book on the fight against climate change – they all sent a clear message to the global community: Cities won’t change their course towards a better world climate! Or, as mayors of many US cities together with other leaders put it in an ”open letter to the international community”: ”We are still in”.

Paris’ city hall was illuminated in green on 1 June as a protest against Trump’s decision / photo: C40 Cities @Twitter


And many cities have ambitious targets. Copenhagen aims to reach ”carbon neutrality” already by 2025. Sydney will reduce greenhouse gases by at least 70% until 2030. In 2040, Stockholm will be totally fossil free if everything goes according to plan. And there are numerous cities all over the world with equally high ambitions. And there are two global trends that give them good reason to strive for it.


Trend No. 1: Re-municipalisation after the sell-out of the 1990’s

According to ”Energy Cities”, municipal enterprises represent 25% or less of their local green house emissions. So, what makes cities declare future ”carbon neutrality” or ”fossil freedom” when three quarters are businesses owned by somebody else? Is it nothing but cheap rhetorics, because in the end it is private companies that will have to take responsibility and pay the check?

One way is to take back control where it has been lost. ”Liberalisation requires privatisation” – that is what many municipalities believed when the European energy markets were liberalised in the second half of the 1990’s. In a liberalised market, pressure on prices would increase, size would matter. Therefore, many municipalities in Europe decided to sell their local energy companies, their ”crown jewels”, while the big and powerful utilities were eager to become even bigger and more powerful. Energy was to become a product like any other.

But the privatisation tide quickly turned. Citizens felt troubled about the hegemony of big international corporations and their phlegmatic reactions to what in their eyes is the world’s biggest threat, pushing their local governments to take action.
As a result, energy and water today are considered more as public goods than ever before. If cities are bold in their ambitions and certain of their will to repurchase local energy providers, it’s because they know that the majority of citizens are behind them.

To be able to fulfill their aims, they insist on having influence both when it comes to designing the rulebook and to returning energy facilities to public management – either in partnership with the incumbent utilities, or, if necessary, against them. That’s how and why the re-municipalisation of these sectors has become one of the largest global trends in the first decade of the 21st century.


Trend No. 2: Energy Democracy

Yet, re-municipalisation is just one way of regaining influence. At the latest since Paris, there are few energy companies left on the planet which would still invest in fossil fuels. If so, what is it that can make the business model of the municipal company of the future more attractive than any other? And which other possibilities do cities have to turn their bold commitments into reality?

Attending Energy Cities’ Annual Conference in Stuttgart earlier in May, Communication Works got insight into the next big trend: Energy democracy or the “3 D’s – Democratize, Devolve and Divest”.

Cities have understood that they can do much more than taking back ownership of utility shares to drive the energy transition. Committed to their targets, they can engage and empower citizens. They can create or facilitate partnerships and alliances among local stakeholders and, above all, mobilise them with innovative tools and approaches such as crowdfunding, community energy cooperatives, co-creation of local action plans, innovation incubators, and co-design of public spaces, to name just a few.

We discussed about fabulous examples such as living street labs as part of the mobility concept of Gent (BE), Sustainable Energy Plans in Milton Keynes (UK), Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham (UK), the Great Energy Debate in Nantes (FR), co-owned neighborhood co-generation schemes (BE) and many, many others. Beyond the mere climate issue, they seek to address other social challenges and expectations from energy poverty to sharing responsibility for the common good.
Actively experimenting and promoting new governance models, the global cities’ movement is making sure that climate protection is not only a trans-national but also the first post-national movement of the second decade of the 21st century.


People power and communication

As much as they have in common, in the end every community has its own dynamic and every project experiences the communicative challenges – listening, creating dialogues, inviting, understanding and engaging – in a very different way. Key for success is to serve both minority and majority views, and to multiply approaches to reach out to both those citizens who actively seek engagement and to those who might never show up at any meeting but will still be concerned by the choices made. This is where communication expertise, dialogue and participation formats, an advanced social media strategy and special tools such as Community Scouting that we have developed at Communication Works make a difference.

The world climate lies in the hands of people, not of national governments. Connecting all stakeholders, be they institutional insiders or outsiders, to ambitious goals is a communicative challenge that Communication Works loves to help solving.