The challenges of the green transition for local and regional authorities were in the focus of the first Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the CEI Member States



NAMRB hosted the first Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Central European Initiative (CEI). The event is part of the program of the Bulgarian Presidency of CEI this year and was organized with the financial support of CEI Cooperation Fund.

The topic "CEI Local and Regional Authorities in Post-Crisis Europe: Prospects for a More Sustainable and Resilient Future" brought together representatives of local government associations from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Hungary, Montenegro, guests from the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, the Network of Associations of Local Authorities from SEE, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, mayors and representatives of Bulgarian municipalities.

In the official opening of the event, moderated by the Executive Director of NAMRB Silvia Georgieva, the Chairman of NAMRB Management Board and Mayor of Veliko Tarnovo Daniel Panov drew attention to the most serious challenges that Bulgarian municipalities are facing in the context of the global crises and the green transition. Panov highlighted specific problems that require close cooperation between local authorities at national and regional level and understanding within the European institutions.

"The proposals at the local level are especially important because they have the potential to be developed into policies and grow into joint projects," said Stanislav Todorov, Bulgaria's CEI National coordinator, adding that the Bulgarian presidency aims to promote cross-border cooperation between local and regional authorities, as well as creating opportunities for the exchange of ideas and concrete joint plans in the future.

Zoran Jovanovic, special adviser to the CEI Secretary General, said the organization is focusing on the local dimension as an opportunity to reduce the gap between national and local authorities, with a view to developing more local government projects supported by CEI financial instruments.

"Local authorities not only represent the interests of citizens, municipalities and regions, but also have concrete experience in how decisions taken at national level can work on the ground," said Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. The mayors and the municipal councils are the foundations of a healthy democratic network, he stressed and suggested the idea of creating a forum of the 16 CEI member states within the Congress, as an incentive to expand the effectiveness of interaction between different levels of government.

The first session, moderated by the International Partnerships Team Coordinator at the Council of European Municipalities and Regions Boris Tonhauser, was dedicated to the challenges of the environmental transition to clean energy in the EU.

Deputy Minister of Environment and Water Nikolay Sidzhimov outlined the challenges that coal regions in Bulgaria face. EU sustainable development policies also set high standards for the work of national and local authorities, which require the active participation of citizens - greenhouse gases generated by cars in cities, as well as emissions from industrial activities. Against the background of modern economic difficulties, the renewal of the automotive fleet is a serious challenge at the national level, as the alternative that needs to be worked upon is the development and digitalization of the railway segment and combined transport. "The energy intensity of Bulgarian industry is one of the highest in the EU," said Deputy Minister Sidzhimov, adding that reducing harmful emissions is one of the priorities set within the Recovery and Resilience Plan of Bulgaria. Another point of focus is the development of hydrogen technologies. This innovative energy technology presents new challenges to the authorities at various levels - innovative businesses go hand in hand with overall economic growth and workforce development. "We hope for a mutual effort between central and local government and we rely on your leadership positions in your communities," the deputy minister told participants in the event.

Bernd Vöhringer, Mayor of Sindelfingen and President of the Chamber of Local Authorities in the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, presented the practical experience of German local authorities interaction with other levels of governance. "Given the economic consequences of Covid-19 and the tragic events resulting from the war in Ukraine, we cannot say that the decisions to deal with the emerging crises are local. In addition, there is the threat of climate change. "National governments are working together with local authorities, but at the same time there is segmentation of societies caused by the spread of fake news and hate speech," Bernd Vöhringer said in a statement. He also presented the concept for the operation of the utility company in Sindelfingen.

The future solar map of Burgas municipality was presented to the delegates in the Congress by Ivaylo Trendafilov, an expert from the municipality. As part of the Solar Cities project, the local administration team is investigating the city's potential for photovoltaic installations. The expert presented the specific steps for creating a modern database with the possibilities for building and developing capacities from renewable energy sources. After the areal mapping, a public platform will be created, where people can check the exact information about the potential of solar energy generated by each roof, the number of photovoltaic panels to be installed, as well as the value of the investment.

The Executive Director of the Network of Local Government Associations in South East Europe (NALAS), Kelmend Zajazi, moderated the second session of the event, focusing on the situation in the Eastern Partnership countries and the Western Balkans. He commented the serious problem of human resources’ shortage that should implement European policies in the field of sustainable development. "The partnership between municipalities can be a successful tool for overcoming insufficient capacity" said Kelmend Zajazi, emphasizing that the challenges of the Green deal are an opportunity to seek partnership in the management of processes: energy management, information and joint investments in energy infrastructure.

During the second session, the Special Adviser to CEI Secretary General Zoran Jovanovic informed the delegates with the main CEI financial mechanisms to support projects aimed at introducing and developing sustainable practices. For more than 10 years, the transition to clean energy has been within the scope of the CEI goals, and is a priority for the period until 2023. A Cooperation Fund for small and medium-sized projects has been established, aimed at stimulating various forms of exchange of experience and partnerships. The annual procedure will be opened in a few days, he announced, adding that the budget will reach 600,000 euros. The Knowledge Exchange Program funds projects in the field of knowledge transfer from EU countries to non-EU members. The current procedure will be announced on 13 June and the next call for projects will be at the end of the year. The budget of each of the procedures is 250,000 euros. Since 2012, financial support has been provided for feasibility studies, design, green investment activities and initiatives related to the transition. "The countries of the Western Balkans region are in dire need of support for investment in a circular economy. It can become a strong asset in the agricultural and forestry sector, so it is important for countries to develop their infrastructures and markets in order to avoid the risk of seeing these sectors only as a source of raw materials alone" Jovanovic noted.

The experience of the Montenegrin capital Podgorica in the introduction of modern environmental approaches was presented by the Head of the Secretariat for Urban Planning and Sustainable Development Miljan Barovic. One of the most serious challenges is the growing number of cars and related problems with clean air, traffic congestion and lack of parking spaces. The result of the efforts of the municipal team to deal with emerging environmental problems are 27 km. bicycle lanes, as well as the “Podgorica on Two Wheels" campaign, aimed at promoting cycling and providing subsidies for the purchase of bicycles. During the campaign alone, more than 2,300 residents of the capital bought bicycles, which led to a reduction in the share of cars in traffic.

Podgorica is also successfully tackling the problem of using solid fuels for heating in winter. The municipality is developing and implementing a large-scale program to encourage investment in private photovoltaics. In 2019, the first legal reliefs for the use of solar energy were adopted and a number of local policies were changed. The aim of the administration is to facilitate as much as possible the procedures for investments in installations for energy production from RES. The Montenegrin capital is also preparing to begin work on building the country's first large solar power plant on 69 hectares. Podgorica is already part of the EU's mission - 100 climate-neutral and smart cities.

"Urban development, environmental protection and the development of public services are priority activities in the work of the Standing Conference of Towns and Municipalities in Serbia. The organization is a center for information exchange between municipalities, especially regarding the Green deal", said Miodrag Gluscevic - program director of the organization and stressed that municipalities are overwhelmed with daily tasks and responsibilities, but it is to them that both governments and citizens have the highest expectations regarding the green transition.

"Green issues have not been a high priority so far, but this is changing rapidly in the context of European policies," said Miodrag Gluscevic, noting that for the organization he represents, the fact that the environmental component is already part of all decisions at European level, is a chance to develop a new aspect of its potential. "There is funding, but a strong process of centralization is developing along with it. The state is trying to plan and lead the processes, to determine the type of investments to be supported Gluscevic commented - obviously the Serbian problems are no different than those in Bulgaria, although a member of the EU.

In conclusion NAMRB Executive Director Silvia Georgieva thanked the delegates of the CEI Congress and expressed hope that after last year the Montenegrin Presidency laid down the foundations of CEI local dimension, the first Congress in Sofia will give additional impetus to its development.