Ania ROK, Stefan KUHN, 2012

ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability

In the last two decades local governments have shown that they are able to drive the implementation of sustainable development and to initiate respective local processes - sometimes more effectively than national governments or international organizations. Sustainable development has been successfully localized and is no longer a distant, theoretical concept but one filled with meaning and evoked in everyday activities.

1 - Local consciousness about global and future impacts of today’s action has never been as high

20 years after the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro local sustainability processes are not following any common methodology, but a common logic: The local contribution to global sustainability is a conscious and intended side-effect of actually pursued improvements of local living conditions. Local sustainability first and foremost means a healthy, diverse and resilient local economy; jobs; an attractive natural and built environment; good quality housing; access to healthy food, air and water; functioning social and political systems and public services; and increasingly also the (financial) independence from increasingly expensive fossil resources. The uniqueness of this global movement of local sustainability processes, unprecedented in history, is that all of this takes place under the paradigm and the acceptance of both the limits of global ecosystems and the global and future effects of local activities.

Information on global trends and the impacts of any local activity on future generations and other places must be made available as a standard basis for political and economic decision-making.

2 - A good local sustainability process combines various driving forces

Local sustainability processes are characterized by their initial driving forces. The types described in this study show that these forces originate in different systems: Local government, civil society, networks, national governments and international partners each give local processes their unique energy and quality. It is important to understand that each of these qualities taken alone are invaluable, however not sufficient for a powerful sustainability process. Taken together they constitute a simple yet helpful set of mutually supportive forces: an ideal local sustainability process will thus combine as many as possible of the properties of each of the five types identified, and be :

  • laid down in a local strategy,

  • rooted in a civil society initiative,

  • linked with others as part of a concerted action,

  • embedded in a national policy, and

  • enriched by international partnership at the same time.

The effectiveness of local sustainability processes as well as of programmes designed to support them should be enhanced by combining the strengths of as many as possible of the five process types identified in this study.

3 -The multi-local movement has prepared the ground for advancing national and international sustainability policies

The fact that tens of thousands of local governments all across the globe dedicate local activities to the common value ‘sustainability’ and thereby influence national and international policies and standards represents a remarkable political innovation. Still, the outcomes of this political innovation cannot primarily be measured by any drastic changes in the physical conditions or energy and resource flows it has brought about, as many may have expected originally. Instead they can be found in many social innovations, which however are crucial for the physical changes doubtlessly necessary in the near future to be anchored in and owned by the civil society.

The potential of local sustainability processes to prepare radical policy shifts on all levels through political and social innovation must be recognized and further developed.

4 - Local sustainability processes are hubs of social innovation

The development of the local sustainability movement coincided with the massive expansion in the use of the Internet, personal computers and mobile phones world-wide. This opened completely new possibilities for civil society to organize itself, get and share information, and participate in political processes. Local sustainability processes employed the benefits of new media in disseminating information at extremely low costs to formerly unimaginable mailing lists, in further developing methods for public and stakeholder participation, and in linking local activities up with those in other places. It is however more important to see and better exploit the potential for social innovations coming with new communication technologies: new forms of self-organization such as carrot mobs, crowd sourcing, crowd funding, participatory GIS, guerilla gardening, pledges, etc. empower people to act instead of just participating in talks. In contrast, classic consultation methods usually employed in local sustainability processes rather aim at developing common ideas and positions.

By combining classic methods of consultation and participatory policy development with new forms of spontaneous and collective action, local sustainability processes can strengthen their role as test beds of sustainable innovation.

5 - Local sustainability was one of the first open source development processes - and this is one of its biggest strengths

The local sustainability movement was not steered by any one particular organization that could have structured, standardized, documented or evaluated the local processes implemented world-wide. Still, at the same time a number of international organizations and networks have emerged, which bring together local governments and represent them in the international policy arena. Numerous international instruments for local governments to find orientation, recognition and ways to evaluate progress have been developed by many different parties and with varying intentions. In addition, more and more individual local governments started to engage and present themselves on an international level - mayors have indeed become global actors to an extent not known before. While the implementation of sustainable development became largely localized, local governments have at the same time globalized themselves.

Global programmes for sustainable development have to combine the variety, creativity and adaptability of local strategies with universal national and international support structures.

6 - Local governments have to deal with the effects of a deregulated globalized economy

The development of the multi-local sustainability movement coincided with the globalization of the economy, granting large international corporations practically unlimited access to natural and human resources globally. The political response to this phenomenon, however, is environmental and social standards defined by national governments, and in competition with each other which effectively regulates these standards downwards. The negative effects of this vicious circle is visited on the local level world-wide: wherever people have no access to clean water, where products for the affluent parts of the world are produced under degrading conditions, where intact medium-sized companies are taken over and liquidated, where forests are chopped down and arable land is contaminated, where prices for corn, electricity, fuel or steel multiply, and so on.

For the people affected, as well as for international organizations that try to help them, the primary contact is with local governments: Local sustainability processes thus operate in a vacuum between globalized economic activity and an insufficient protection of natural and human resources through national and international policy-making.

The global community needs to agree internationally on environmental and social standards enforced through national legislation in order to provide a reliable framework for both the global economy and local sustainability processes.

7 - Greening the economy is a chance to address the crisis

The focus on economy emerging during the preparatory process towards Rio+20 bears an invaluable potential for correcting the up to now unsustainable development on Earth at the source: by changing the conditions for human economic activities. For many internationally operating companies and some national governments ‘Green Economy’ may merely be understood as ‘Green Growth’ and booming technological innovations supported with public money: operating systems for urban infrastructure, large scale power plants based on renewable energy sources, genetically modified super-seeds or electric cars are only a few examples. This focus on technological solutions however is too narrow and leads to new risks: social innovations such as new forms of organization, new business models, basic income models, common welfare work, crowd thinking and others could make the Green Economy a true contribution to sustainable development.

Furthermore, the Green Economy will only have positive effects for the people if it is designed as a ‘Green Urban Economy’ - with components such as decentralized regional energy, waste and water management, and concrete improvements of local living conditions. By purchasing goods and services, setting quality standards, building institutional frameworks and bringing actors from all sectors together, local governments will have to play an important role. Among others, they have to be empowered to engage with globally operating providers of services and infrastructures such as water and energy supply, public transport, security services or waste management, and to define and control the social and environmental quality standards they demand for any solutions to be provided.

For the Green Economy to become a serious contribution to sustainable development, it has to be linked with social - not only technological - innovation. Decentralized solutions and public control over common goods will be key.

8 - ‘The future we want’ requires a new definition of growth

Many local governments around the globe have been experimenting with various indicators to measure their success or failure in moving towards sustainable development. As a result, many comprehensive sets of sustainability indicators are available but are difficult to communicate to the public. Others are experimenting with single aggregated indexes such as the Human Development Index[[]] the Ecological Footprint[[]] or the Gross National Happiness[[]] index. At the same time, the single most popular indicator for measuring development world-wide still remains the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which however has turned out not to be suitable for measuring human well-being. With unsustainable and undesirable incidents like disasters, diseases and pollution potentially contributing to a growth in GDP, it becomes obvious that this indicator is strongly misleading our perception of the world as it does not measure the true progress of human development.

GDP has to be replaced by a development index which is based on social wellbeing and environmental quality, and at the same time is simple enough to be calculated and communicated on the local, national and international level.

9 - Sustainable development needs a multilevel governance system with a multi-sectoral approach

As this study shows, local governments are willing and able to achieve a great deal in moving towards sustainable development. However, where national taxation and subsidies incentivize, and legislation fails to sanction unsustainable behaviour, the best local sustainability process reaches the limits of its effectiveness. Therefore it is not enough for local governments to demand better recognition and support for their sustainability processes on the local level from national governments at the Rio+20 conference. Clearly it is the time to promote legal and fiscal framework conditions in all countries that (re-)direct investment and thinking towards sustainable solutions.

On the international level, world leaders are facing the task to improve the institutional framework for sustainable development, in order to formally involve all levels of government as well as further, non-governmental actors, each with their individual strengths: To create a multilevel governance system with a multi-sectoral approach in which each player needs to play his part according to their respective competences and powers.

The future institutional framework for sustainable development of the UN should include local governments as governmental stakeholders and at the same time initiate national and international legislation that supports their efforts.

10 - It’s time to move from national interests to global environmental justice

In addition to what has been said above, it may be helpful for the international community to move away from the practice of negotiating individual national reduction targets as a percentage of current emission levels. Instead, acceptance should be sought for globally applicable average per-capita limits for the extraction of natural resources and for the emissions resulting from their use. These limits could be calculated from the carrying capacity of global ecosystems and be universal for all countries. Provided that compensation for the very unbalanced use of resources in the past can be included, they could provide the basis for reduction targets and development corridors for any country, both in the North and the South, and could furthermore be broken down into targets for sub-national and local governments. Finally, this approach would facilitate the establishment of access and emission trading schemes between territories.

International negotiations about emission reductions and access to natural resources should be based on the principle of global environmental justice, thus allowing every world citizen on average to use the same share of global resources.


Published by :

In Partnership with :

  • Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind

  • United Nations Human Settlements Program UN-HABITAT

To go further

This study would not have been possible without the contributions made by a number of experts from all around the globe who shared their knowledge with the authors in the form of both written and oral answers to a set of guiding questions. We extend our gratitude to the staff of the following organizations and individuals:

ICLEI Offices: Africa Secretariat, European Secretariat Japan Office, Canada Office, Korea Office, Mexico Office, Oceania Secretariat, South Asia Secretariat, Southeast Asia Secretariat, USA Office, World Secretariat.

Regional and Country Offices of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme UN-HABITAT: Arab States Region, Burkina Faso, Central America, China, Indonesia and Pacific Island countries, Latin America and Caribbean Region, Sri Lanka, Western Balkans.

Further: Africa: Johan Nel (North-West University, South Africa), France: Ministry for Sustainable Development, Association 4D, Japan: Katsutaka Shiraishi (Ryukoku University), Hidefumi Imura (Yokohama City University), Korea: Korean Institute Center for Sustainable Development, Latin America: Francisco Alarcon (Finland).

The study was financed by the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind, Lausanne (Switzerland), the German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Protection and Nuclear Safety, and Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt DBU. Its publication was supported financially by UN-HABITAT.

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