As a centre-Right politician who has worked on environmental issues at local, national and the European level, I know first-hand the importance of a localist approach to environmental policies. I started my career in local politics in the Lithuania’s fourth-largest city, Šiauliai, where I was elected the vice-mayor. Subsequently, I represented local government in the EU’s Committee of the Regions, advising the EU institutions on environmental policies, and I also become Lithuania’s Deputy Minister for Environment. As Deputy Minister, I was given the task of heading the renovation project of buildings so as to increase their energy efficiency.
Let me begin by outlining what I mean by a localist approach. Localism is about civic empowerment. It is about ensuring that decisions are taken as close to our citizens as possible. It means taking decisions at a supranational level only when needed and empowering local communities to have a say in them.
In our efforts to try to restore trust in the EU and build a new social contract with citizens, we must not fall into the trap of taking more power away from the latter.
Localism is the opposite of a top-down imposition of a political agenda. In our efforts to try to restore trust in the EU and build a new social contract with citizens, we must not fall into the trap of taking more power away from the latter. This is crucial for areas like the environment that do represent a cross-border challenge and therefore do require coordinated action. While we need to share-best practices in trying to be ambitious, in addressing climate change for example, we need to allow local and regional government to use the variety of tools at their disposal that best suits that local context.
As Roger Scruton famously observed in his book on environmental conservatism, “history tells us that large-scale projects in the hands of bureaucrats soon cease to be accountable, and… regulations imposed by the state have side effects that often worsen what they aim to cure”.
The European Union, with its overwhelming number of environmental binding targets, is a good example of such risks. In 2013 the EU already had an extensive set of 63 binding and 68 non-binding targets in the area of environment.
While it may look nice to have figures on paper, we must remember that no region is the same. Some of our regions highly depend on electricity imports, whereas others have achieved greater independence through decades of subsidising renewable technologies or investing in extraction of domestic conventional sources in order to achieve greater energy security. It is precisely because of such differences that a one-size-fits-all approach is not helpful.
As a result of one-size-fits-all approaches we end up with a very complicated system with many derogations and administrative burdens. We therefore have to ask ourselves if such a heavy system is incentivising or slowing down already ambitious local and regional governments.
We need a system that allows local and regional government to use the variety of tools at their disposal so as to be ambitious on environmental issues. We must not hold them back through an EU regulatory straightjacket. For that reason my group has called upon the vice-president of the European Commission to conduct a review and evaluation of all EU binding targets.
The coordinated EU action must be proportionate to the challenge at hand. On climate change, we do need to be ambitious, but we also need to avoid the temptation to call for unrealistic targets at supranational level which will be detrimental to jobs and growth. At the same time we should not overlook the fight against climate change in our local communities.
Through my own experiences as a local, national and EU politician, I have seen first-hand that it is only through the different tiers of government working together that we can achieve our intended results. In my home country, Lithuania, I was directly responsible for the national programme of modernisation of multi-apartment buildings, which aims to ensure that these buildings are more energy efficient. This is important because buildings are responsible for more than 40 per cent of energy use in most EU member states.
To make the project in Lithuania a success, we decided to empower our local communities. We did this by granting more power to municipalities and ensuring that no financial and administrative burdens are imposed on individual households. We developed an innovative financing scheme allowing for long-term loans at preferential rates.
We need a system that allows local and regional government to use the variety of tools at their disposal so as to be ambitious on environmental issues. We must not hold them back through an EU regulatory straightjacket.
As many as 1,000 buildings have been renovated under this scheme and a further 2,000 are undergoing renovation. A large number of jobs have been created due to the fact that renovation projects are carried out by 300 small- and medium-sized construction companies. Besides creating jobs, we also lowered consumer bills. Our experience showed that renovation of buildings led to energy savings of between 50 and 80 per cent.
We have achieved such great results in these areas because all levels of government – the European Investment Bank, the European Commission and the central government – have worked in close cooperation with local government to achieve a multiplier effect. More than 70 per cent of our renovation projects have been implemented through municipal programmes. We created a new model, in which a key role in terms of financial management is played by programme administrators appointed directly by municipalities.
The same localist principles should apply to all EU action. For instance in the field of heating and cooling, I believe the European Commission has a role to play in providing support, be it financial or technical, but it is also important that the EU recognises local and regional authorities are at the heart of this process.
Local authorities are not only involved in the development and management of infrastructure but are also among the largest energy users. Many towns and cities across the EU already have climate and sustainable energy action plans, which incorporate low-carbon heat and carbon production, deployment of renewable energy sources and measures aimed at energy efficiency improvement.
I encourage you to look at the opinion of the European Committee of the Regions on heating and cooling prepared under my leadership, in which I put forward concrete recommendations from the local government perspective on how to unleash the potential of this sector in terms of energy savings, sustainability and energy diversification.