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Katja Dörner - Mayor of Europe - October '22 Katja Dörner, Mayor of Bonn, Germany. Image: Gerd Seidel on Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (with added logo)

In Bonn, climate neutrality means reducing our energy consumption and mastering the shift to emission-neutral use

The Mayor of Bonn, Katja Dörner, was elected in 2020. She has been an active member of the Greens since 1992. Since March 2021, Mayor Dörner has co-chaired the ICLEI Global Executive Committee 2021-2024 portfolio on Climate Action and Low Emission Development.

Her priorities are making Bonn climate neutral by 2035, advancing sustainable mobility – notably with more bike lanes and a car-free inner city, fighting inequalities and promoting affordable housing.

Ms Dörner, could you tell us, how did Bonn become a leader in climate change policy in Germany? Was it by luck, since the UN Climate Secretariat is located in the city, or was it something else?

When the Climate Secretariat settled in Bonn back in 1996, one year after COP 1 in Berlin, climate action in Bonn had already taken off. We started reporting on our carbon emissions back in 1990. Then, in the mid-1990s, we spearheaded the renewable energy movement by establishing fair pricing on renewable energy fed into the grid.

The UNFCCC settlement has been a strong motivation though. Being so close to climate headquarters meant gaining a deeper insight into many aspects of climate change while addressing them at the local level.

One other boost has been the close collaboration with ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability and other networks like the Climate Alliance or the European Covenant of Mayors. Also, we started early to strategize our partnerships with cities all over the world to integrate climate and sustainability into this work and put it high on the agenda.

Another thing is the tangible climate action on the ground. This has been built up over the years, and we have now made it a top priority under my administration. Achieving climate neutrality by 2035 at the latest requires a huge transformation – and we in Bonn have taken on this challenge with all we can possibly bring to bear.

You came to power two years ago with a strong commitment to reducing traffic in the city and shifting people’s mobility perspective. At the time you pointed out that 60% of Bonn’s residents used public transport and the goal was to push that number to 75%. Where is the city now?

The inclination of people to use public transport has significantly risen over the past few months in Germany and here in Bonn. An important driver of this development has been the subsidised monthly 9-euro ticket, enabling ticket owners to commute on regional trains nationwide.

The current mobility survey MiD 2023 will provide solid data for Germany and the region of Bonn. In the meantime, the 9-euro ticket has fuelled the discussion on the financing of public transport in general and on ticket pricing on the federal, state and local levels. This is an important discussion because – as we all know – fares are one of the determining factors when it comes to mobility decisions on the consumer side.

One way we are addressing commuters in Bonn is a program called “Jobwärts/jobwards“. Together with our public transport provider and with local employers, we have compiled incentives for employees to switch from using their own car to environmentally friendly options. Sometimes the question of which mobility to choose depends on costs, which we can solve by offering subsidised job tickets.

Space in a city is limited, and we can only allocate it to one mobility segment. That is why it is crucial to make room for environmentally-friendly options. In Bonn, for example, we have just redistributed a central road in favour of bus and bicycle traffic. Cyclists travel much safer on this busy route now, and buses can move forward quickly without getting stuck in traffic jams. 

Bonn has pledged to reach climate neutrality by 2035, but what would that mean in concrete terms for the city? Where are you now and where do you hope to be in the near future?

In Bonn, we are striving to achieve climate neutrality by reducing our energy use and mastering the transition towards regenerative and emission-neutral energy use. Compensation, however, shall only play a minor role here. We do not want to engage in CO2-emissions trading.

Our emissions balance, which we have been publishing for many years now, proves that emissions have slightly gone down in almost all sectors over the past few years. However, we are lacking speed. 1% of buildings have been energetically refurbished to date and it is far from enough. For years, the mobility sector has not been successful in significantly reducing emissions. We must act - and we must act fast!

Your administration has been able to introduce a host of measures already, what would you say is your biggest achievement and what is the next major step?

Let me refer to photovoltaics as an example of what we have already implemented: Bonn has made photovoltaics mandatory for all major construction projects in the city area. Moreover, an incentive program for photovoltaics on existing roofs was launched in 2021 – resulting in 1,000 successful applications in the first year alone.

At the moment, we are drafting the Bonn Climate Plan 2035 as a systemic approach toward climate neutrality. This plan will point out what the Bonn Corporation and Bonn civil society must achieve and implement to become fully climate neutral in 2035. An action program 2023-2025 will be the core element of it, clearly laying out the pathway and to-do lists towards initiating and mastering the transformation.

On the same note, how would you say people’s lives will change by 2035? How would a regular citizen ‘feel’ climate neutrality?

Climate change has already brought a profound change to our daily lives. This summer has been one of the hottest ever in Germany. Last year, we experienced a terrible flood in a neighbouring region, which claimed many lives. These days, we are watching footage of a catastrophic flood in Pakistan. Fossil fuels have not only become an environmental problem, but also a threat to our very existence.

During our ‘Bonn4Future’ citizens’ fora, we are hearing from people in Bonn – randomly chosen – about how they envision a climate-neutral city. My personal vision is a liveable, green city with high quality of life.

In 2035, our public spaces will provide multiple qualities to citizens – green space, shade, water and fresh air during the hot summers. In times of heavy rains, they will serve as retention areas. People will move around in an environmentally friendly way and there will be fewer vehicles because people will be sharing them – conveniently and in accordance with their individual needs.

By 2035, our municipal buildings will have become attractive, climate-friendly and smart – they will be places to learn, explore culture or enjoy sports. Our focus on incentives and consulting will have led to privately owned buildings consuming minimal energy – and to people spending less money on heating and more on social participation.

As you know, not all cities are created equal and a lot of your colleagues in municipalities still have a long and steep road ahead of them, in terms of reducing emissions. Can Bonn’s success be exported to other municipalities, especially in the ex-industrial powerhouses in the Ruhr valley?

Local governments in Germany are very diverse and universal benchmarks are hard to find, due to structural, economical or topographical differences. A common bottom line, however, will be the principles of climate-resilient urban planning and of sustainable construction. This is why I strongly support and advocate any kind of collaboration and peer learning between local governments.

What is special about Bonn, however, is the lively collaboration with the cluster of resident sustainability and key climate players, e.g. the UN Climate Secretariats. We are getting lots of inspiration in this international and global context, which proves highly beneficial to our local strive towards climate neutrality.

Also as Co-Chair for Climate Action of ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, I would like to underline that this transformation is the biggest challenge we have ever undertaken. Not only as German cities but as an entire planet!

Author: Denis Balgaranov

About Mayor of Europe™

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