International reference frameworks

Ania ROK, Stefan KUHN, juin 2012

ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability

With Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 offering only a very general direction for actions to be undertaken at the local level, there was a widely recognized need to agree on a more concrete guidance that would steer local sustainability processes. With the local sustainability movement gaining momentum, local governments are increasingly looking for a reference point, a standard their own performance can be compared against.

Many referred to international commitments, such as the Rio Conventions, Millennium Development Goals and the Kyoto Protocol, for example through comparing local CO2 reduction targets with those allocated to countries under the Kyoto Protocol. Others have decided to go a step further and join or create a bottom-up local government movement, actively entering the international arena and taking on the responsibility of implementing sustainable development in their cities or towns. Organized through bottom-up processes, local governments call upon national and supranational structures to support them in their efforts and to recognize the potential of local action. In some regions, most notably in Europe, their calls have been heard and the supranational institutions saw in local governments valuable allies in implementing their sustainable development policies. This resulted in a wave of new, top-down local sustainability initiatives addressed to local governments.

1 - Bottom-up initiatives

Looking at the wide spectrum of bottom-up initiatives coming from the local level, one can distinguish between comprehensive local sustainability frameworks, like the Aalborg Charter, the founding document of the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign, or the STAR Community Index, and more theme-oriented campaigns, such as the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign.

The main objective of these comprehensive frameworks is to agree on a common vision for local sustainability, set out issues to be addressed and propose a process to support the achievement of this vision. The holistic approach, integrating social, environmental and economic aspects, is certainly a key strength of these initiatives but may also turn out to be a weakness, if the concepts used are too general and difficult to translate into practice. The European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign remains the most prominent example of a comprehensive, bottom-up framework to date. It has inspired efforts to establish comparable structures in other parts of the world, such as the Nunoa Charter in Latin America, but none have managed to achieve a similarly high profile.

The more narrow focus of the theme-oriented campaigns makes it easier for them to define clear goals, offer practical, targeted support and ultimately produce tangible results on the ground. Initiated in 1993 and still going strong, ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) Campaign has united over 1000 local governments worldwide in an effort to reduce GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. CCP has evolved into a broader movement, inspiring other initiatives, including the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and the Partners for Climate Protection Programme, the Canadian component of the broader CCP. Building on CCP experience, local governments are today at the forefront of global action for climate mitigation and adaptation, with the Local Government Climate Roadmap. Launched in 2007 at the COP13 in Bali, it mirrored the UN Climate Change Conference Climate Roadmap and, since there is still no binding international climate agreement, continues today with initiatives like the Copenhagen Cities Climate Catalogue, Mexico City Pact and Cities Climate Registry, and – most recently – the Durban Adaptation Charter.

The strengths of the bottom-up initiatives lie in their flexibility and respect for local priorities, as well as in their democratic nature that creates a sense of ownership amongst local governments. On the other hand, the bottom-up nature often means problems with keeping the process alive, e.g. due to a lack of reliable funding sources or the waning commitment of key actors. To avoid the danger of operating in parallel to ongoing political processes, bottom-up initiatives increasingly strive to link up with existing processes, both to maintain their relevance and to raise the bar on such processes (such as the Local Government Climate Roadmap does for the UNFCCC negotiations process, for example).

Aalborg Charter and Aalborg Commitments: Foundation of local sustainability in Europe

Adopted by local government representatives gathered in Aalborg, Denmark in 1994, the Aalborg Charter has been signed by more than 2700 local authorities, most of them Spanish and Italian. Read today it is still one of the most visionary and forward-looking documents on local sustainability, and yet is has managed to win the support of hundreds of cities in Europe. Ten years after the adoption of the Aalborg Charter, the cities active within the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign decided that a new, more practice and process oriented document is needed, in order to accelerate the implementation of local sustainability processes.

As a result, the 2004 European Conference adopted the Aalborg Commitments - a list of 50 qualitative objectives organized into 10 themes, including governance and management, environmental, social and economic issues, as well as containing a global solidarity dimension. The move from charter to commitments signified a new, more structured and ambitious approach. To be signed by the political representative, the document required the signatory to comply with time-bound milestones. Each local government was asked to produce a baseline review within a year of signature, conduct a participatory target-setting process and arrive at a set of individual local targets addressing all 10 themes within two years, as well as committing to regular monitoring review.

As of 2011, the Aalborg Commitments have been signed by over 650 local authorities, a majority of them Spanish and Italian once again. However, when it came to complying with the requirements, the numbers were significantly lower: 67 baseline reports and 11 target-setting documents were uploaded to the Commitments website. One of the main reasons for this was the lack of enforcement procedures, meaning that failure to deliver did not result in being removed from the list of signatories. On the other hand, most European cities who consider themselves dedicated to sustainable development in one way or another refer to the Aalborg Commitments, even if they decide to structure their own processes differently.

STAR Community Index: How to create a working national standard?

The STAR Community Index1, launched in 2012 as a Northern American local sustainability framework, is a strategic planning and performance management system that offers US local governments a road map for improving community sustainability. In its effort to support local governments and communities, STAR combines four key elements: a vision of healthy, prosperous and inclusive communities, clear goals and performance measures, a rating system that drives continuous improvement and fosters healthy competition, and an online performance management tool. The framework is organized around 10 guiding principles and includes 81 sustainability goals. In 2010, 10 beta communities were selected, including New York, Washington, Austin and Atlanta. Each contributed to building the online platform and to road-testing the system itself. Developed in a broad participatory process, STAR is a partnership between ICLEI USA, the US Green Building Council and the Center for American Progress.

2 - Localizing regional and international policy goals

As the successes of local action become apparent, regional and international organizations, such as the European Union, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), increasingly realize the need to “localize” their strategies. Coordinated involvement of local governments is seen as a crucial factor in meeting international targets related to issues such as climate and energy, biodiversity and resilience.

The EU initiatives created in the last few years, such as the Covenant of Mayors, linked to the EU Climate and Energy Package, or the European Green Capital Award 2, have been very effective in further raising the profile of sustainability issues and have inspired calls for similar instruments to be established in other areas of European policy. The EU Committee of the Regions recommended the extension of the Covenant of Mayors format to the entire EU resource efficiency agenda, while the roll-out of the EU Reference Framework for Sustainable Cities, linked to the objectives of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy and the Leipzig Charter, is expected in 2012.

Existing local sustainability awards and rankings are usually top-down, with criteria being defined externally, with only a few exceptions (e.g. the Sustainable Cities Award of the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign). The most popular ones, such as the UN-HABITAT Scroll of Honour Award, the EU Green Capital Award, the ITDP Sustainable Transport Award or the Green Cities Index (coming from the business sector), attract a lot of media attention and are highly valued by local politicians.

The main advantage of top-down initiatives, particularly those endorsed by the EU, is high political visibility that attracts local leaders, as well as a strong support network on the national level, e.g. through line ministries. They are usually accompanied with well-funded dissemination and capacity building activities, making it easier for cities not only to join but also to comply with the requirements. On the other hand, such initiatives are more vulnerable to political pressures and may settle for easily achievable or non specific targets, particularly if the goals agreed at the international level are not ambitious enough. The monitoring of implementation at the local level also remains a challenge, with most processes still based on self-reporting and declarations.

Top-down does not necessarily mean a lack of stakeholder participation. It is certainly reassuring that many top-down campaigns seek to involve local governments in various stages of the process. However, in most cases local governments and their organizations are invited to support the implementation of the international and regional goals, while their voice in discussions on defining those goals is seldom heard. Even though it is encouraging to see many top-down processes include a stronger involvement of local governments, the question whether it is possible to combine ambition and ownership of bottom-up process with the political visibility and resources of the top-down ones remains open.

EU Covenant of Mayors: New energy for Europe?

Launched in 2008 to involve local governments in the achievement of EU climate and energy goals, the Covenant of Mayors has quickly become an important political instrument for showcasing the potential of local action. Hailed as an exceptional model of multi-level governance, the Covenant has been created by the Directorate-General Energy of the EU Commission to support the implementation of the EU Climate and Energy Package, in particular the 20% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2020. The signatories adopt a resolution in which they commit to exceeding the EU target and accept the obligation to present a Sustainable Energy Action Plan, including emissions inventory, within a year of signature, and then an Implementation Report every second year.

To date the Covenant has been signed by over 3200 local authorities. One third of them have already submitted their action plans, with targets often far exceeding the required 20%. However, so far only approx. 10% of the plans submitted have been accepted by the Covenant Secretariat which may suggest that their quality is not always as high as expected. With the obligations clearly defined, also the enforcement mechanisms are stronger than those applied, for instance, by the Aalborg Commitments Secretariat – while delays seem to be acceptable, those not complying are eventually suspended. Similar to the Aalborg process, here again it’s the Italian and Spanish municipalities that make up over 75% of the signatories but the Covenant has been more successful in reaching out to cities in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe.

UNISDR Making Cities Resilient Campaign: Localizing climate adaptation

The UNISDR Making Cities Resilient Campaign addresses issues of local governance and urban risk, based on the understanding that local government officials are faced with the threat of disasters on a day-to-day basis and need better access to policies and tools to effectively deal with them. Established in 2010 for a five-year period, the Campaign aims to raise political commitment to disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation among local governments and mayors. As of December 2011, almost 1000 cities from 80 countries have answered this call. The Campaign encourages cities to act, having developed a checklist of ten essentials for making cities resilient. The Campaign introduces no binding commitments, focusing instead on awareness raising and training support and involves a wide range of partners, including local government organizations.


2 See the case study on Nantes, the 2013 European Green Capital in: Local Sustainability 2012: Showcasing Progress. Case Studies, ICLEI Global Report 2012


Published by :

In Partnership with :

  • Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind

  • United Nations Human Settlements Program UN-HABITAT

En savoir plus

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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