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Hans Bruyninckx: People want a place to live that can protect them from the inevitable impacts of climate change

Hans Bruyninckx: People want a place to live that can protect them from the inevitable impacts of climate change

An interview with the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency

Dr Hans Bruyninckx became the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency in 2013. He completed a PhD in international environmental politics at Colorado State University in 1996 and from 2010 headed the HIVA Research Institute in Leuven, specialising in policy research. He has conducted research in areas including environmental politics, climate change and sustainable development.

Dr Bruyninckx will attend and speak at the European Research and Innovation Days 2021. Hear him speak at the “Systemic approaches towards sustainability transitions: Circular Economy as a transversal need” session on 24 June, by registering here.

100 climate-neutral cities in EU by 2030 - that’s the European Commission’s goal. Dr Bruyninckx, is this realistic and are we on our way to getting there?

Yes, it is realistic with the right political will and decisions. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that our societies and cities are vulnerable, but also extremely resilient and capable of adapting and responding to new challenges when it is needed.

Change in the right direction is already happening in many places, and the frontrunner cities are attracting top talent and investments. Making cities climate-neutral, more livable and more sustainable is the only way forward. It is about accelerating that change.

How long would it take us, as urban residents, to start thinking of cities in a radically different light?

It does not need to take very long, and I think it is already happening. Cities are already changing rapidly. The demand for better cycling, walking and public transport opportunities is growing. People want, and deserve, clean air and green areas, including in cities.

People want a place to live that can protect them from the inevitable impacts of climate change. These ideas are mainstream now and they are far away from the ideas of cities that we had just a few decades ago.

What are the key sectors that could engender a new environmental revolution?

Rather than looking at narrow economic sectors, I see the greatest potential in four core systems in our societies: the food system, the energy system, the mobility system, and the built environment.

This relates to how we produce and consume our food and energy, how we move people and goods around, and how we construct and repair our homes, offices and other infrastructure, especially in the cities. All these systems must become radically more sustainable to deal with the environmental, climate and resource challenges that we face.

Should environmental transformation mean the same thing for cities and regions across the continent? Can it be a process dependent on geographic, economic, or even cultural variables?

Cities are different and the challenges they face are different. It is clear that climate change, for example, has different impacts on the cities of southern Europe compared to those in northern Europe.

National, regional and local economies are also different, and people can and do prioritise different things. The challenges we face are global – and all societies have to find solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises - but the solutions can be highly contextual and local.

What is the link between the persistence of Europe’s environmental challenges and the established societal systems that benefit the citizens?

Our unsustainable systems of production and consumption are the root cause of climate change and environmental challenges in Europe and globally. We can achieve some results by making these systems more efficient, for example, with new technology. But it is only by addressing the fundamental problems in these systems – food, energy, mobility, buildings – that we can make them sustainable.

There are many win-win solutions, too. Making the food system environmentally sustainable would also improve our health. Switching to renewables makes our air cleaner. Better mobility solutions make our cities more livable. Improving our built environment will make better homes now and save money in the long run.

When we talk about innovation we tend to think about technology. Yet, can social research and innovation play an equally important role in environmental transformation? Do you see that reflected in European environmental policy?

Technology can help us along the way, but it is indeed not enough. Social innovation can reach solutions that change how we behave, choose and what we value, and it is important to better understand these mechanisms. But we also have to remember that all of this happens in a context and people have very different opportunities.

That is why it is so important that the idea of just transition is embedded into the European Green Deal. Making sure no one is left behind means that people feel connected to these changes because they know these will deliver better lives and the jobs of the future. People also want to feel that they have a role to play in the transition - and this point is critical for solving the environmental and climate crisis.

Thank you for your time!

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