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Going Erasmus on green cities

Elizabeth Kuiper , Gianluca Spinaci

Date: 05/09/2023
At a time when the implementation of the Green Deal is at a crossroads, young people need to feel empowered. Their future is at stake. The EU should provide them with more opportunities to train, work, and volunteer on climate and green projects. Is Europe ready to engage with its youth to bring the Green Deal forward? We urge Commission President Von der Leyen to include in her next State of the Union speech an Erasmus+ initiative with paid traineeships in green cities to empower young people with the skills needed for the green transition.

One cannot fall in love with a set of regulations. As former President of the European Commission Jacques Delors famously put it for the Single Market, "Europe will never be built if young people do not see it as a collective undertaking that will shape their future”. He launched the Erasmus Programme, a concrete symbol of the Single Market, which illustrated how European students could benefit from the freedom of circulation and experience within member states. A few hundred students were enrolled at the beginning of the programme in 1987. But by 2027, there will be over a million students per year.

In the same vein, for the Green Deal to move forward, it requires a human face. An initiative with the impact of Erasmus to provide young citizens with concrete training opportunities or employment guarantee schemes to work on local green projects in the member states.  

For example, the European Year of Skills could be used to offer opportunities. Currently, it remains a communication exercise short of solutions on the ground. According to Eurobarometer, two in three young Europeans wish to contribute to the green transition through their jobs. However, 45% of young Europeans lack the skills to do it. So, how do we fill this gap?  

US Climate Corps programmes leading the way

The US is leading the way. Public Civilian Climate Corps programmes allow young people to enter paid traineeships that provide them with the necessary skills for green professions. Local projects offer either 2 or 11 month schemes. Training on the job represents approximately 20% of the total hours worked.  

California is the most advanced due to the California Climate Action Corps, which trains young fellows in projects related to urban greening, organic waste and food recovery, and wildfire resiliency. Since its launch two years ago, 615 tonnes of food have been salvaged and re-distributed; 916 tonnes of organic waste have been diverted from landfills; 11,728 trees have been planted; and more than 10,000 people have been mobilised.

In addition, the Mayor of New York City Eric Adams is investing $54 million in the New York Climate Corps. The scheme benefits young people living in communities most impacted by gun violence. It aims to establish a clean energy workforce by involving troubled youth. Participants are trained and paid to work on insulating houses or installing roof solar panels in neighbourhoods such as Brooklyn or the Bronx. Since the launch two years ago, more than 400 people have been trained in 191 projects. These programmes take root in many other US states and cities and are customised to local climate challenges.

Going Erasmus on Green Cities

At the European level, it would be feasible to replicate such programmes and launch similar initiatives. However, we must be realistic. The current reluctance of most member states will limit any additional spending at the EU level for new initiatives. On top of that comes the timing. At the end of this legislative cycle, the appetite to launch ground-breaking plans diminishes.  

And why reinvent the wheel if you have an infrastructure that could serve as a platform for new initiatives? We propose to build on existing networks, like the 100 Green Cities or the 100 Climate Neutral Cities, and gradually build an Erasmus programme hosted by these cities.  

How would this work? Young Europeans would be travelling to one of the green cities. They would get a European fellowship to live there, be trained, and work on local environmental projects. From circular economy to the reduction of water and air pollution, from climate and energy resilience to nature restoration and biodiversity promotion. 

Bear in mind that cities and regions are responsible for 50% to 80% of all actions in climate adaptation and mitigation, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Mayors and local councils are the best possible hosts to engage with young people in various climate and green projects. Local authorities would integrate the young fellows into their teams for a given period. They will be in direct contact with local communities, with very tangible results and impact. A European platform would facilitate matching opportunities and initiatives to exchange experiences among participants.    

We propose starting this initiative as a pilot project, representing a concrete outcome for the European Year of Skills. Ultimately, it would become a more robust programme during the next legislature (2024-2029). The umbrella initiative could be framed and financed under Erasmus+ and the European Solidarity Corps. A link should also be made with the Youth Guarantee schemes put in place by national and regional authorities through the European Social Fund.   

The implementation details could be refined throughout the pilot project. However, what cannot wait is a clear call for action. To give Europe’s youth the skills they need to contribute to the green transition. To invest in their future and the jobs needed to tackle climate change. To give the Green Deal a human face, as the Erasmus programme did in the days of Delors.  

The upcoming State of the Union on 13 September is the right moment to launch this call.

Gianluca Spinaci is an Advisor on the Green Deal at the European Committee of the Regions.* 

Elizabeth Kuiper is an Associate Director and Head of the Social Europe and Well-Being programme at the European Policy Centre.

*The information and views in this Commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official CoR opinion.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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