EU Commissioner Sinkevičius talks reconstruction of Ukraine, pivotal role of cities in achieving sustainability and EU support


Virginijus Sinkevičius, born in 1990 in Vilnius, Lithuania, serves as the European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries since 2019. A graduate of Aberystwyth University and Maastricht University, his early career encompassed roles in journalism, European policy analysis, and project coordination. Elected to the Lithuanian Parliament in 2016, he quickly rose to prominence as the Minister of Economy and Innovation. Known for his youthful energy and forward-thinking approach, Sinkevičius focuses on environmental stewardship, the European Green Deal, and circular economy initiatives, earning recognition for his contributions to Lithuania’s business environment and innovation reforms.

Talking with Mayors of Europe, Sinkevičius discusses the EU’s efforts to address environmental damage from the war in Ukraine, the success of the REPowerEU plan, the crucial role of cities in the Green Deal, and the importance of addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution as central challenges in the upcoming EU elections.

Firstly, congratulations on hosting the successful Ukraine Green Recovery Conference in Vilnius, which brought together valuable insights, case studies from Ukrainian cities, implemented projects as best practices from across European cities but also businesses frontrunners of sustainable development. Given your firm support for Ukraine’s green European future, could you elaborate on the challenges and strategies in addressing the significant environmental damage and ecocide in Ukraine? Additionally, in the context of the war in Ukraine and the current energy crisis, how do you perceive the role of the European Green Deal in addressing these challenges?

The environmental consequences of Putin’s war of aggression are huge. It’s not just the loss of critical water and waste infrastructure, but the ongoing pollution of air, water and soil. Not to mention the destruction of ecosystems, and the huge drain on natural resources. When the environment itself is a victim of war, we know that consequences are felt beyond Ukraine’s borders. And we know that people suffer long after the conflict has ended.

This is why these problems must be addressed as part of the reconstruction. The Environmental Compact that we recently published shows how it could be done. It comes in the form of fifty recommendations, in three priority areas. Priority one is monitoring the damage, from nuclear safety concerns, water and soil pollution to exploded or unexploded ammunition. We need to know exactly what needs to be done, and where. The Commission supports a range of efforts in this area.

Priority two is ensuring accountability and prosecuting these crimes. We take this very seriously, so our support to the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine is continuous; that also includes ongoing discussions on the potential use of windfall revenues from frozen Russian assets.

And priority three is ensuring a green reconstruction – restoring the damage, to nature and the environment, and replacing the prewar economy with a greener, healthier, more prosperous future.

That is absolutely in line with the accession process, and the reconstruction and recovery that we aim for through the Ukraine Facility. We want to work side by side with Ukraine to help with this kind of recovery, providing both technical support and funding.

On the role of the European Green Deal to address the energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I can positively say it made us stronger and more resilient. The REPowerEU plan we launched in May 2022 helped the EU save energy, produce clean energy and diversify its energy supplies. Thanks to REPowerEU, we’ve safeguarded EU citizens and businesses from energy shortages, supported Ukraine by weakening Russia’s war chest, and accelerated the transition to clean energy.

By acting together, the EU has reduced its dependency on Russian fossil fuels, saved almost 20% of its energy consumption, introduced the gas price cap and the global oil price cap, as well as doubled the additional deployment of renewables. Our joint efforts continue and Europe is now better prepared and more united than ever. Putin’s attempt to blackmail Europe using energy has failed.

Cities are undoubtedly pivotal in the European Green Deal, being home to a majority of EU citizens and significant contributors to energy consumption and CO2 emissions. As the Alliance of European Mayors collaborates to share best practices across cities, we’ve observed amazing transformative efforts from cities of Tallinn, Grenoble, Lahti, and looking forward Valencia. From your perspective, how effectively are cities delivering on the Green Deal’s objectives? What role do you envision for urban centers in driving sustainable transformation?

Over 70% of Europeans live in cities and urban areas. This means that cities are at the frontline of many of the challenges we face today, from the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises to demographic change and the digital transition. Cities are also true magnets of people and businesses, acting as an economic centre for the surrounding territories, to which they provide key public and private services.

Cities are responsible for directly responding to the needs of their citizens. They have a key role in implementing the ambitious policy priorities agreed by the EU and its member countries on the ground. This requires action at all levels and strong engagement of all actors. Cities and municipalities play an important role in this process, and it is also key that they make use of all possibilities available and take an active part in the discussions. EU cities and municipalities are not alone in this endeavor, there are many EU funding instruments and policy initiatives to support them, for example two projects have been selected for a grant under the Horizon Europe call to associate Ukrainian cities to the EU’s Climate-neutral and Smart Cities Mission. The allocation of €10 million to the two projects is double the original budget

As cities are not only home to people but also industries and hubs of economy, tell us about your latest efforts in fostering circular economy in the cities which are as new sustainable business models develop, becoming innovative laboratories of our future. What are the most effective strategies local governments can adopt to transition towards a circular economy, and how does the European Commission support these local initiatives?

We support local initiatives through our two urban environmental initiatives: The Green Capital and Leaf Awards and the Green City Accord. The awards contain an indicator on circular economy and waste management. We look closely at frontrunner cities’ best practices and successes, and help the winners spread their experience on a European scale.  We also regularly publish citizen diaries, which showcase the organic effects of progressive policies on the ground. The Green City Accord is our latest initiative to improve the environment in cities and features circularity as one of the five key environmental indicator areas which cities have to report on.

In addition, the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform contains information, good practices and examples of cities driving the circular economy. The Platform works closely with the Circular Cities and Regions Initiative, which increases synergies among projects and initiatives, disseminates relevant knowledge, and gives greater visibility to best practices.

In your opinion, how collaborative leadership at the EU level can empower local governments to implement sustainable practices so we all advance at the same pace? Do you think local leaders are contributing enough in shaping EU environmental policies, in collaborative manner?

Cities actively participate and support the Commission’s Urban Agenda for the EU. Experts from different levels of governance analyse key urban issues and make proposals for improvements, such as better regulation, better funding and better knowledge. Since 2016, more than 130 actions have been proposed to reinforce the urban dimension of EU policies. The Commission is supporting the Urban Agenda with two new partnerships on greening cities and sustainable tourism and a call will be launched this summer to select partners for the future city of equalities and food partnerships. There is permanent cooperation with relevant national level ministries (EU Presidencies of the Council) and city organisations to steer this ambitious initiative. In addition, globally, the Urban Agenda for the EU contributes to the United Nations New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Beyond this multi-level governance, the Commission’s dialogue with cities also takes place at the biannual European Cities Forum through the annual direct dialogue between the Commission and EU capital city mayors or other events such as the recent Brussels Urban Summit. Under Cohesion Policy there are several integrated territorial and local development strategies and various tools to empower urban authorities and territorial bodies to address local challenges, while requiring strong local partnerships with relevant stakeholders.

So there is a lot on offer for cities, although the information is often spread out. We are building a website to gather all relevant information in one place and are streamlining the various urban initiatives, so information and funds are easier to access.

As the EU elections approach, what are the key environmental challenges and opportunities you believe should be at the forefront of the political agenda? 

As the EU elections approach, it is crucial to address the triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Scientists warn that our window to secure a livable future for humanity is rapidly closing. Our decisions in the coming years bear immense consequences and we cannot waste any more time. The EU elections are a crucial occasion to rally collective efforts and the political will to make sure we address these challenges effectively.

How can local governments and communities be more actively involved in this discourse?

This is a recurrent question brought up by European cities – small and large. While on our end under the Green Deal we have delivered more proposals and initiatives than during the last three or four colleges combined, it is now up to the people on the ground, the cities, to implement the transition towards a greener, cleaner and healthier future.

Some frontrunners are already very active. Winners of the Green City Awards for example excel in reaching out to their citizens through different events and campaigns. The cities also collaborate in a dedicated network where they exchange best practices and formulate friendships. Direct connections are vital to discuss and address various challenges that cities face during sustainable initiatives.

On the political front, there is considerable movement. Under the current Belgian Presidency and in collaboration with the Committee of the Regions and the Covenant of Mayors, a group of likeminded cities have recently published the “Brussels Declaration” with concrete priorities and recommendations for a strong and ambitious EU urban policy during the next European mandate. We are certain that cities must be a larger part of the solution, and many are ready to step up to the challenge.