[Thesis] David Donnerer: “The Role of Cities in Climate and Energy Policies”

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The Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy (CoM) was launched by the Commission of the European Union (EU) to improve the sustainability and climate-friendly development of European cities. Yet, is has received little attention from the academic world despite it being framed as the “world’s biggest urban climate and energy initiative” by EU Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete.

David Donnerer seeks to rectify this in his master’s thesis The Role of Cities in Climate and Energy Policies: The Case of the Covenant of Mayors which was submitted to Aarhus University, Denmark’s MA program in International Studies in August 2016. His analysis is based on a number of interviews with participators in the CoM.

The thesis in is entirety can be accessed here.

David Donnerer currently lives in Bruxelles, where he works for the city network Energy Cities and the CoM Office. He has previously worked as a freelance writer and journalist, and he has held positions in Lindbergh International and the EU Parliament. Besides his MA in International Studies from Aarhus University, David Donnerer holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Media Management from FHW, Vienna. 


David Donnerer’s thesis examines how the Covenant of Mayors (CoM) has shaped the role of cities in climate and energy policies. Cities are a justified focal point, as they are on the frontline of climate change and the energy transition, currently the two main issues in climate and energy policies. The CoM is an initiative launched by the EU Commission in 2008, where cities commit to go beyond the EU climate and energy targets. The main reason to engage in this subject is the lack of academic interest in the CoM. Research on urban climate and energy policies mostly focuses on Anglo-Saxon city networks and initiatives.

A theoretical and an empirical approach were used to analyze the role of cities in climate and energy policies through the case of the CoM. The theoretical approach consists of a literature analysis, while the empirical part includes qualitative interviews with ten Covenant cities and supporting structures, as well as background interviews with key CoM stakeholders and the analysis of legislative and political materials in which the CoM is featured. It is proposed that the Covenant affects the role of cities in climate and energy policies twofold: by shaping their ability to engage in such policies on their territory, and also by enhancing their capability to influence these policies outside of it.

In the first chapter, the theoretical perspectives of urban climate and energy governance and multi-level climate and energy governance are used to analyze why, how and under which circumstances cities enact climate and energy policies. Five different types of urban climate and energy governance are determined: self-governing, governing by authority, governing by provision, governing by facilitation and governing by collaboration. The relevance of this classification is also explained in the fact that certain governance types such as governing by collaboration have different implications on the climate and energy policymaking of cities. Finally, it is assessed how cities shape and are shaped by multi-level governance processes in climate and energy. Depending on whether cities are embedded in a hierarchical, vertical or horizontal multi-level governance framework, they are enabled or constrained in their capacity to undertake climate and energy policies.

In the second chapter, an overview of the CoM is given. Firstly, the pillars and actors of the CoM are elaborated upon. The CoM’s Sustainable Energy Action Plan (SEAP) is a cornerstone of the initiative, as it is through the SEAP that CoM cities can go beyond the EU’s climate and energy targets. The CoM supporting structures (e.g. provinces) are furthermore described as a key actor, as they provide crucial support for cities’ SEAP. Finally, the CoM’s extensions beyond the EU, the Covenant East and Covenant Mediterranean, are outlined.

Chapter three focuses on the empirical methodology. The qualitative interview form of the semi-structured telephone interview was chosen for the interviews with ten CoM cities and supporting structures, as its flexible approach allows to steer the data gathering process effectively. The respondents were selected based on eligibility criteria that can provide a qualitatively diverse dataset. The data gathered through this interview form is analyzed through a codebook typical of qualitative content analysis. To further enhance data analysis, a complementary document evaluation was conducted, in which data from the respondents’ SEAPs was extracted and cross-compared. This information enables to complement the interviewees’ responses, in particular the CoM’s impact on their policymaking capacity.

The fourth chapter is the cornerstone of David Donnerer’s thesis. It demonstrates that the CoM has a varying impact on cities’ ability to engage in climate and energy policies. This is due to the national multi-level climate and energy governance framework in which the CoM is embedded, as the initiative affects cities’ relations in multi-level governance processes differently. Where national governance frameworks are weak, the CoM is able to establish itself as the embodiment of a vertical multi-level climate and energy governance model of institutionalized cooperation, while it fails to do so in strong national governance settings. It is however also shown that the CoM is systematically used by both cities and EU institutions to make cities influential policymakers in EU climate and energy issues. Thus, Donnerer concludes that the CoM has overall enabled cities to acquire a key role in climate and energy policies: the initiative has built up the climate and energy policymaking capacities of cities, shaped the multi-level governance relations of cities and enabled cities to become key actors in EU climate and energy policymaking.

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