EURACTIV 08/30/23
By Michael Shank

In 2016, Oslo became the world’s first city to adopt a climate budget. In an update due in September, the Norwegian capital is expected to expand the concept to include indirect greenhouse gas emissions, which would be another major first, writes Michael Shank.

Michael Shank is director of engagement at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance.

The idea of a climate budget is not new for cities anymore. Many cities have introduced a climate budget, following in the footsteps of our member city Oslo in Norway. Oslo is the much-heralded inaugural leader of the concept, adopting a climate budget in 2016 on their road to an emissions reduction goal of 95% by 2030.

This year marks the midway point of Oslo’s climate budgeting journey and as the city continues to improve upon their climate budgeting process, with another update coming in September of this year, it’s worth checking in to see why the climate budget is so beneficial and why more cities should join the movement.

A climate budget is a pretty simple concept. The core idea of Oslo’s budget is that it forces the whole city government to focus on where they can cut emissions. When budgeting for emissions reductions across each department or agency, it serves as a very helpful planning tool, which is why so many cities have integrated it already.

But beyond the basic climate budgeting idea, and the benefits that come from having every city department and agency adhere to this emissions reduction strategy, what are the additional benefits that come from coordinating across and above city silos in this way? And are city cultures and environments changing as a result?

Yes, it turns out the city culture is changing and for the better. When you have to run every new proposal through the climate office, as the City of Oslo requires, there are a host of other benefits that stem from that reorganisation and streamlined workflow.

Let’s take a look at a few.

First, there are new efficiencies. With a well-staffed climate office, other departments and agencies can lean on, borrow from, or contract this expertise so that non-climate offices don’t have to hire up or staff up in this way. Those are substantial savings for a city. Additionally, the city organisation, as a whole, becomes a more efficient machine given the increased coordination and communication across all agencies. And since climate action brings with it so many socio-economic and health co-benefits, which then touches and impacts every aspect of city programming, it sets up a virtuous cycle of positive reinforcement across the organisation.

Second, there are new skills and competencies. Oslo’s climate office is required to liaise with every other city department or agency, and on every new proposal, so the climate staff quickly learn the diverse and varying cultures, capacities, languages, and approaches intrinsic to other city offices. That learning curve and resulting competencies are not only good for a city staffer’s resume and professional development, but that’s also a win for the city.

The city talent just got smarter and more capable. Similarly, non-climate offices get the learning opportunity when witnessing how their department’s policies and programs impact the planet and the important and creative ways to tweak those projects to emit less. This is all good knowledge to have going forward. And it makes for a more resilient adaptive city workforce as well.

Oslo’s new procurement practices are a good example. Procurement standards have been tightened to ensure the environment is weighted at 30% in all procurement processes. The city also changed its common tender criteria to signal all municipal construction sites should be zero emission by 2025.

Now, Oslo’s Agency for Improvement and Development, which previously focused mainly on price and quality, and preventing worker exploitation and tax evasion when purchasing goods and services, has to pay close attention to environmental criteria. As a result, all municipal construction projects, a large majority of vehicles owned by the city, and deliveries made to the city are zero emission.

Third, there are new missions and models. In Oslo, up until this year, the climate budget primarily focused on direct emissions. The new budget for 2024 is the first that systematically includes indirect emissions. And the same goes for energy with production, consumption, and efficiency measures. That means that the parameters for what’s included in Oslo’s overall climate budgeting process widen significantly.

For example, desk or office furniture at city-run senior centers and schools become part of the climate budgeting process since greenhouse gases were emitted when manufacturing them. Concrete and steel building supplies at city-run construction sites similarly become part of the budgeting process given the embodied emissions in the built environment. These indirect emissions are as essential to the climate budgeting process as direct emissions because of their sizable carbon footprint. The built environment alone, for example, generates 40% of annual global CO2 emissions. Capturing that in the budgeting process, then, is essential.

It’s important to note that these efficiencies, competencies, and missions are advantaged when the city has a strong, clear, emissions reduction mandate that comes from the top and that has been adopted by the city government. That’s essential for ensuring an all-agency commitment to this work so that the climate office, through which everything must run, has the agency and authority it needs to do its work effectively across city departments. Oslo’s city agencies have that mandate from above, which makes all the difference in the world in getting the good work done expeditiously.

Going forward, as these climate budgets continue to be improved, tweaked, and perfected, all of this work has the potential to usher in a new form of city governance where there’s a more seamless working relationship across departments, fewer silos, more collaboration and coordination, and more efficiencies and co-benefits. And that would be the big win.