Riga, Vilnius and Tauragė: How can Baltic mission cities become climate-neutral by 2030?

On 24 November, EIT Urban Mobility hosted the panel discussion ‘How can Baltic mission cities become climate-neutral by 2030?’, at the international Transport Innovation Forum (TIF) 2023 in Vilnius, with mayors and political representatives from the Baltics

They talked about their path towards climate-neutrality – and the challenges they’re facing to get there.

“90% of the journeys in Tauragė are made by car,” said Dovydas Kaminskas, Mayor of Tauragė, an ambitious Lithuanian municipality of around 22,000 inhabitants that is part of the EU’s mission for 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030. A huge shift is needed, he said, so “we will have a lot of problems if we don’t also change the mindset of people.”

The Lithuanian capital has similar challenges, said Andrius Grigonis, Vice-Mayor of Vilnius: “Almost 48% of trips in Vilnius are still made by car. By 2030, we want to reduce this number to 30%.”

To do so, Vilnius aims to invest heavily in public transport. “We still have trolley buses made in countries that don’t exist anymore [Czechoslovakia],” said Grigonis. “We have around 400 buses that are old and need to be replaced.” The capital’s public transport fleet is on average 21 years old.

“In Lithuania, there’s still the thinking that powerful cars are very important in everyday life, despite the fact that it’s often stuck in traffic jams, polluting the air. It’s very difficult to convince people to change to public transport,” explained Grigonis.

The two politicians agreed that a main priority in changing travel habits is educating citizens – including civil servants working in these cities.

The “100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030” mission is an ambitious European Commission initiative that 100 EU cities and 12 non-EU cities have signed up for. Of these, five are in the Baltic countries: Vilnius, Tauragė, Riga, Liepāja and Tartu. Through the NetZeroCities platform, EIT Urban Mobility supports the mission cities in their efforts to decarbonise the mobility and transport sector.

“Could you not find an easier challenge than achieving climate-neutrality by 2030?” joked Anders Bengtsson, Head of Innovation Hub North at EIT Urban Mobility and moderator of the panel discussion. The mobility and transport sector is a particularly difficult one to decarbonise, he said, calling it a “wicked problem.”

Every mission city faces its own challenges when it comes to decarbonising mobility. However, the cities on the panel all highlighted that regional collaboration plays a key role in accelerating progress towards the 2030 climate goals.

Riga plans to implement low-emission zones in the centre, while promoting multimodality across the wider metropolitan region. Doing so will require collaboration beyond administrative borders, said Inese Andersone, Head of City Development Committee of Riga City Council, as the need for multimodal travel does not stop at the city’s borders.

Being part of the Cities Mission and collaborating with other cities, notably through EIT Urban Mobility, helps Riga accelerate change towards climate-neutrality, said Andersone. For this to happen, though, structural changes within the city are important: “Business as usual, or running-the-city-as-usual, will not be enough.“

Collaborations with cities in the wider region, such as Helsinki or Riga, are also helpful, said Andrius Grigonis, the Vilnius Vice-Mayor. “We already collaborate with Riga and have strong ties with Helsinki. But we should also look for bigger collaboration formats, for example with cities in Denmark.”

The Mayor of Tauragė, Dovydas Kaminskas, added that it’s easier to convince citizens to be more open to new solutions and to transforming the use of public space when you can point to successful examples from other cities: “Look, they did the same in Riga. In Tallinn. In Paris, Barcelona…”

A good example of cross-border collaboration is Tallinn and Helsinki’s joint ticketing system for public transport, said Eva Killar, Head of Mobility Development and Investments Department at the Estonian Ministry of Climate. This required aligning different IT systems and agreeing on who receives which ticketing fees. However, she said, “as a national government we can make long-term changes, but the changes have to happen in the cities.”

Collaboration needs to transcend borders, help transform mobility behaviours and, ultimately, set the stage for a climate-neutral future. Anders Bengtsson emphasised that EIT Urban Mobility’s role is exactly that: to support cities in making change and help them connect with other cities and with innovators and experts from industry, academia and research from all over Europe.

And all cities have a role to play, confirmed Kaminskas from the stage in the Lithuanian capital: “Tauragė is too small to change the world, but it’s big enough to show an example.”

The Transport Innovation Forum 2023 was organised by Transport Innovation Association, a Silver partner of EIT Urban Mobility.