Local sustainability and changes in political culture
Ania ROK, Stefan KUHN, 2012
ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability
Thinking about the legacy of local sustainability processes, there is one question that inevitably springs to mind: has the local sustainability movement succeeded in making the world a more sustainable place? Looking at statistics and projections available, both in terms of environmental and social performance, it is clear that we are still a long way from global sustainability. As to cities, one can’t help but notice that the prevailing urban development patterns are not sustainable, leading to sprawl, congestion and segregation. Rapid urban growth and wasteful consumption patterns remain a challenge to communities worldwide. However, even though a lot remains to be done, local sustainability processes have made a lasting impact on the way we understand and implement sustainable development today.
The following chapter will highlight key changes in terms of how local sustainability has been understood and governed, including shifting thematic foci and evolving approaches to public participation. Finally, it will reflect upon the changing role of local governments, both in terms of decentralization progress and increased activity on the international scene.
1 - Conceptualizing sustainable development - towards a green urban economy
Local processes described in this study deal with sustainability – but what exactly does that mean? As already mentioned, in collecting information for the study the authors have decided to leave the task of defining sustainability to the respondents, trying instead to find out how this term is understood at the local level. Put simply, the question is what do local governments do when they say they work towards sustainability, and as a follow up, how has it changed over the past two decades?
It came as no surprise that a lot of respondents still refer to the 1987 Brundtland definition, according to which: « sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs »1. Others quoted the formulation included in the preamble to Agenda 21, which defines sustainable development as “the fulfilment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future”2
A popular view of sustainable development sees it as composed of three pillars, environmental, social and economic, even if not all of them are treated equally. However, these general definitions can translate into very different activities on the ground, depending on local concerns and priorities. In light of the preparations for the UN Rio+20 Conference, and in particular the discussion about a ‘Green Economy’, the question of interconnectedness of the sustainable development pillars keeps coming back. Can we treat environmental, social and economic goals as equally important? Are they compatible or contradictory?
Willing to contribute to this critical debate, ICLEI proposes to consider an alternative model of conceptualizing sustainable development, inspired by Herman Daly’s 1973 Sustainability Triangle. 3. This re-conceptualization underpins the proposals formulated by ICLEI in its contribution to the zero draft of the Rio+20 outcome. 4
Selected as one of the key themes of the upcoming Rio+20 Conference, the concept of green economy has received a great deal of attention in the last two or three years. In its much-discussed report “Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication”, UNEP argues that investing 2% of global GDP into ten key sectors can kick-start a transition towards a low-carbon and resource-efficient global economy. Due to the concentration of people, knowledge, infrastructures, resources and economic activities cities are the natural environment in which the transition to the green economy will happen.
With its regulatory powers, market position and communication channels, local governments are uniquely positioned to take an active role in this transition. With instruments such as strategic planning (e.g. building codes or land use planning), financial incentives (e.g. environmental taxes) or advisory services for local citizens and businesses, local governments have an opportunity to shape the local economy, minimizing its impact on the environment and maximizing its innovation potential. One of the examples of local governments’ contribution to greening the economy is the progress in integrating social and environmental criteria in local purchasing policies 5. According to ICLEI’s Procura+ Campaign, sustainable procurement means:
“thinking carefully about what you buy: buying only what you really need, purchasing products and services with high environmental performance, and considering the social and economic impacts of your procurement”.6
Sustainable procurement policies are well established in most OECD countries but there are also a growing number of initiatives underway in others, most notably in China, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa. The 2007 IISD report on the state of play in sustainable public procurement (SPP) found that local SPP initiatives are far more widespread than national ones, particularly in developing countries, noting that:
“While the baseline incentives for these could well be national policies on sustainable development and (to a lesser extent sustainable procurement), it is noteworthy that most of these programmes do not appear to be specifically linked to them. Rather, they are the result of dynamic international procurement networks and proactive leadership at the local level.”7
The choice of green economy as one of the key themes for the upcoming conference has created a lot of controversy, particularly in the absence of a universally agreed definition. For instance, many developing countries feared that adopting green economy principles would lead to a sort of “green protectionism”, adding yet another obstacle to developing country exports. Others, mainly non-governmental organizations and other major groups, criticized the focus on technological innovation and economic growth whilst social innovation and justice received little attention.
It remains to be seen what the outcome will be of these discussions but there is at least one positive aspect of choosing this theme over others. Turning the debate towards economics finally brings into the picture the primary reason behind the exploitative, unsustainable use of natural and human resources – the current model of human economic activity. Raising the level of social and environmental standards for economic activities in local, national and international legislation, ranging from the local bakery to multinational corporations, seems to be the ‘remedy of choice’ if the global community wants to stop the downward spiral of increased exploitation of natural and human resources.
2 - From entry point issues to full-fledged processes
The story of local sustainability processes can be seen as a story of (local) administrations adapting their management and governance processes to sustainable development as a cross-cutting issue, going beyond established policy silos. Most successful local governments started small and later scaled up their activities, broadening the thematic focus, including long-term perspectives and, most importantly perhaps, integrating various activities around a set of strategic objectives. However, in order for this tactic to succeed, it is essential that local governments establish a sustainability management system to steer local processes. Simply adding more activities, without an overarching management framework, results in fragmentation of efforts, waste of human and financial resources and poor performance.
Starting small means focusing on one issue first and then including more, as the process develops. When looking at topics tackled by different municipalities, one can often see certain regularities or typical trajectories that local sustainability processes follow. However, it is important to recognize that those changing topics act more as entry points for local sustainability, relevant for a particular time and place. The choice of priority issues may respond to local concerns, but are also influenced by the availability of funding, political pressures from the central level, and other external conditions.
2.1 - Shifting priorities in local sustainability processes
Japan, similar to many European countries, has seen a shift from air, water and soil pollution as key local sustainability issues in the 1980s to climate mitigation, resource efficiency and biodiversity conservation in the 1990s. The most successful local sustainability campaign to date has dealt with the issues of waste reduction and recycling. Tackling the rapidly increasing waste stream that resulted from growing consumption, local economic growth and a lack of landfill sites became a priority for Japanese local governments, who were concerned about the burden it played on local budgets. Another example of a typical trajectory comes from the US, where the interest of leading local actors has shifted from environment protection and public participation, through climate mitigation and a broad sustainability approach, to climate adaptation issues.
The biggest change apparent in the recent years is the growing importance of climate issues, which are now firmly at the top of the international sustainability agenda. This growth in prominence may be at least partly attributed to discussions incited by the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, published in 20068. In fact, a lot of communities, when talking about local sustainability, refer mainly to their activities targeted at climate change mitigation and – to a lesser extent – adaptation. In the 2002 Rio+10 survey, climate issues were named as one of the top priorities only by European municipalities - today, however, it is truly a global concern. Apart from climate, two other themes have been very successful in mobilizing local action, particularly in the last decade: climate adaptation and biodiversity.
While both climate adaptation and biodiversity have lately become very visible on the international arena, it is necessary to recognize that they are neither replacing nor running in parallel to earlier local sustainability processes. On the contrary, in most cases they build upon ongoing processes, often breathing new life (and funding) into them. After all, whether one reads a climate adaptation strategy or a biodiversity strategy, it still needs to deal with building regulations , health issues, water management or green spaces and it still needs to involve local stakeholders. It’s like putting a new lens on your camera - the shape you are photographing remains the same, just the light changes.
2.2 - Social and environmental focus
The developing countries have started their Local Agenda 21 processes with a focus on poverty alleviation and access to services, both of which remain important in African, Asian and Latin American municipalities. It would be over-simplifying to say that poorer countries deal mostly with social issues and, as they grow richer, the environmental issues take over. On the other hand, it is clear that many municipalities in developing countries still struggle to deliver basic services to their communities and hence issues like slum upgrading, access to sanitation or solid waste management are absolute priority. However, in all of these regions the cities are now also working on resource efficiency, as well as on climate mitigation and adaptation, as a way to maximize cost-effectiveness of their investments.
Despite the dominant position of environmental issues in the global sustainability discourse, issues like health, safety and social integration have been commonly included in Local Agendas worldwide. For instance, in 2000 the German development cooperation, in partnership with ICLEI, introduced the concept of Local Security Agendas in a number of Latin American municipalities. Australia has long implemented the Cities for Healthy and Safe Communities Campaign, dealing with alcohol abuse and violence in urban areas, as part of its sustainable communities approach. In a lot of European countries, including the UK, Italy and France, environmental, social and economic issues are integrated under the umbrella of social entrepreneurship or social economy, often with strong support from local governments.
However, it is worth noting that social and environmental interests are often perceived as competing. One of the examples might be when a certain territory is declared as a national park, with a ban on human settlements, hunting, timber production, etc. Although it ostensibly means preserving the area for future generations, it can also have a more negative effect, destroying the livelihoods of its current inhabitants. Another example is the case of renewable energy which is still often more expensive than conventional energy, partly due to smaller market share and perverse subsidies. There are many similar dilemmas and, even though some solutions do exist, there is a limit to reconciling social and environmental interests in the short term. To ensure that the decisions taken are as sustainable as possible, greater focus needs to be put on education, transparency and public participation.
3 - From public participation to social innovation
The enhanced culture of public participation is often quoted as one of the most remarkable achievements of local sustainability processes worldwide. For many decision makers and citizens alike, this shift in governance is itself regarded as a major step towards more sustainable cities and towns. Considering that the success of local sustainability depends also on the radical change of individual lifestyles, a trust-based dialogue between various groups that make up the local community may well be one of the critical resources needed to make that change happen.
A well-organized and inclusive participation process can be considered among the best measures in terms of conflict prevention. This is especially true with regards to local sustainability policies, as the scarcity of natural resources will exacerbate social tensions - according to the 2010 report by the Peruvian human rights Ombudsman, 50% of the 255 conflicts identified were socio-environmental and most of these were between mining companies and local communities living within their sphere of operation12.
In many countries it was the local governments, as “the level of governance closest to the people” to quote chapter 28 of Agenda 21, who voluntarily initiated and developed the practice of public participation, often investing considerable staff and financial resources in preparing and facilitating these processes. By doing that local governments have contributed greatly to the education and empowerment of citizens, not only in the field of sustainable development.
Even though the right to public participation in sustainable development may be taken for granted today, it is only in 1998 that the UNECE Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters13 was signed, entering into force three years later. As of November 2011, it has been signed by 45 parties and has played such an instrumental role in encouraging greater transparency in environmental matters that its extension to the global level is one of the hoped for outcomes of the Rio+20 Conference.
3.1 - Participation and funding mechanisms
Community participation is now a common requirement in national or international investment and development assistance programmes, at least on paper. In terms of national programmes, a good example is the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission14, a 20 billion USD city modernization scheme, launched in 2005 by the Government of India. For cities to access this attractive financial opportunity, a number of reforms need to be enacted on regional and local level, including decentralization measures and laws on community participation and public disclosure.
A similar requirement came with the US federal community development block grant funding, which created a precedent for public participation for many of the cities which used this funding stream.
Interestingly, in some cases public participation is not limited to participating in decisions but can extend to participating in the actual implementation of activities, with citizens acting as investors in municipal infrastructure projects15 or even developing community-owned investments, e.g. in the field of energy.
3.3 - Web 2.0 - new methods or new forms of participation?
The development of new technologies has had a great impact on participation processes, making it easier for people to express their opinions. Growing access to internet has made it possible to reach out to new social groups, decreased costs of participation processes (e.g. by using online communities instead of face-to-face meetings) and enabled more individual interaction between citizens and city officials (e.g. via social media).
However, while removing old barriers, new technologies may have also contributed to building new ones. One of the terms used when discussing new media is the “digital divide” - the inequality in access to information and communication technologies, related, among others, to differences in infrastructure or IT skills. According to “A Digital Agenda for Europe”, 30% of Europeans have never used the internet16. Digital divide is often brought up to question the representativeness of public participation processes conducted using online tools. There is no doubt that traditional “offline” participation methods also privileged certain groups, e.g. those with more free time or those better educated, but perhaps the awareness of potential misrepresentation was greater, whilst the internet creates the illusion of universal accessibility that can be very misleading.
With new applications appearing almost every day and the spread of mobile phones, also in developing countries, the potential of using these technologies to accelerate local sustainability is immense. More importantly, online technologies create new ways of engagement that redefine local public participation, pushing it towards collective co-production of knowledge and services17.
3.4 - From shared knowledge to shared responsibility
Another practice that has changed public participation processes, particularly in the urban planning field in developing countries, is the so-called Participatory GIS (Geographic Information System) that combines a participatory approach to community development with a set of geospatial technologies. In simple terms, PGIS generates maps that represent people’s spatial knowledge and uses them as tools for community empowerment, analysis and advocacy.
As evidenced by the Kampala example, participation empowers local communities to lobby for better service delivery. But there’s also another positive side effect to the community acquiring a sense of ownership and it can be calculated in monetary terms. The history of public participation in Latin American and African municipalities shows us that such a dialogue is not only trust building, but also contributes to an awareness of shared responsibility for development. In consequence, people are more likely to pay fees for municipal services, which translates into increased revenue for the local government and, through further investments, into improved quality of life for the inhabitants. Kaladougou in Mali, a city that has worked on improving its communication with citizens in partnership with the Canadian City of Moncton, has managed to increase its revenue stream by 25% in less than six months19.
3.5 - Limits to participation
In a lot of countries, particularly in the developing world, engaging relevant stakeholders still remains a challenge and participation processes are prone to manipulation or even corruption. Locally elected officials or consultative bodies often do not represent the voice of local citizens but instead focus on personal gain or simply support the ruling regime. This was the case with Egypt’s Local Popular Councils that have been seen by the citizens as a “corrupt relic of the Mubarak era20. These Councils dissolved following the events of the Arab Spring, which called for more social dialogue and citizen participation in addressing key developmental issues.
The mechanisms of misrepresentation differ slightly in developed countries, where the main obstacle seems to be the lack of interest on the part of citizens or, to put it differently, a failure in enticing such an interest on the part of local governments. This may lead to participation processes being strongly influenced or even hijacked by groups with special interests, often economic.
The question of gender representation and women’s role in achieving sustainable development has been addressed in many local sustainability processes, also on the national campaign level. For instance, the Korean LA21 Network established in 2008 a nationwide Gender Network, dedicated to promoting the role of women in building gender-sensitive local sustainable development. The network calls for women to be included as LA21 council members (at least 30%), gender training programmes to be organized for members and secretariat, new agendas to be set in related themes, and for all LA21 processes to be evaluated from the gender perspective. In March 2011, the African Local Elected Women’s Network has been established in Tangier, Morocco, with support from the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLGA), with the mandate to strengthen the role of women in local development.
Even though recent years have seen progress, there are still groups that remain excluded, e.g. urban poor, people with disabilities and immigrants. To reach people more effectively, local governments resort to already established communication channels and communities, e.g. local media, schools or faith groups.
4 - From top-down to multi-level governance
In the last two decades local governments have not only been given more powers, often with reduced budgets, but have also stepped up to take more responsibility, entering the international scene. Both of these processes are far from over but the experiences presented in this chapter show that we are headed in the right direction, bringing governance closer to people whilst also integrating it into a new multi-level governance system, able to deal with complex challenges that the global society is facing.
4.1 - Decentralization
In 2000 when the first law on local autonomy was enacted, Indonesia experienced “the euphoria of decentralization”. This is a sentiment that many other countries across the globe can certainly recognize. Political decentralization that entails, for example, the introduction of direct elections for mayors and local councillors can awaken local communities, leading them to question the status quo and raising the temperature of public debates. On the other hand, few things can mobilize local community more effectively than a fight for their future and that of their children, such as when natural resources become scarce or are at risk of being polluted. Can local sustainability initiatives prepare the ground for decentralization? Or is it the other way round and it is the decentralization that makes local action for sustainability possible?
It’s interesting to note that the decentralization agenda greatly moved forward in the nineties, the decade that also saw the birth of the Local Agenda 21 movement. In 1996 the Habitat Agenda officially endorsed the principle of subsidiarity, recognizing that:
“(Sustainable human settlements development can be achieved) through the effective decentralization of responsibilities, policy management, decision-making authority and sufficient resources, including revenue collection authority, to local authorities, closest to and most representative of their constituencies.”} Habitat Agenda, paragraph 177.
A year later, Jeb Brugmann, founding Secretary-General of ICLEI, noted that the primary success of the Local Agenda 21 movement has been to build local institutional capacity for sustainable development in hundreds of communities worldwide, with surprisingly little support from donor agencies and central governments, and added:
“(Local Agenda 21) progress has probably been fuelled in many countries by the recent introduction of decentralization policies. But it could be argued that Local Agenda 21 is doing more to facilitate the successful implementation of these policies than the policies are supporting the Local Agenda 21 effort”21.
In 2007 the international community adopted International Guidelines on Decentralization and Strengthening of Local Authorities22, building upon a decade-long debate led by UN-HABITAT. The Guidelines reaffirmed the principle of subsidiarity, underlining that the devolution of tasks to the local level should be accompanied with devolution of resources. The document highlighted that local authorities should be able to participate in taking decisions that will affect them, reiterating also the need for public participation mechanisms at the local level.
4.2 - International recognition and multi-level governance
World leaders have always liked declarations and recent years have seen them commit to numerous goals, agendas and roadmaps. However, it is increasingly understood that global commitments, particularly in the field of sustainable development, are to be implemented locally and therefore mechanisms need to be put in place for the local, national and international levels to work together.
Looking at current international commitments, from the Rio conventions on climate change and biodiversity to the Millennium Development Goals, one can see not only a growing understanding of the importance of local governments as implementing partners but also a growing interest on their side to have a say on the commitments themselves, often pushing for more ambitious goals or binding agreements.
The growing importance of local governments on the international arena is also reflected in the change of their official status. During the preparations for the 1992 Earth Summit, local governments were still considered non-governmental (sic!) organizations. After that, and in the run-up to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg they were given the status of one of nine « Major Groups », the one they still hold during the Rio+20 preparations. However, thanks to advocacy efforts of all local government networks, led by ICLEI, this situation is beginning to change. In 2010 during the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP16 in Cancun, Mexico, local and sub-national governments were for the first time recognized as “governmental stakeholders”. In the same year the role of local governments has been acknowledged by another of the Rio Conventions, during the Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, COP10 in Nagoya, Japan, that adopted a Plan of Action on Subnational governments, Cities and Other Local Authorities for Biodiversity. Rio+20 provides the opportunity to build on these changes and to design an Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development which allows for full participation of Governmental Stakeholders in policy-shaping and implementation.
1. “Our Common Future”, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, UN 1987
2. “Earth Summit Agenda 21. The United Nations Programme of Action from Rio”, UN 1994.
3 Daly, H., “Toward a steady state economy”, Freeman 1973.
5 See the case study of Reykjavik, Iceland in the Local Sustainability 2012 case study series for an excellent example of green procurement activities.
6 Procura+ Sustainable Procurement Campaign, www.procuraplus.org
7 Perera, O., Chowdhury, N., Goswami, A., “State of play in sustainable public procurement”, IISD/TERI 2007, p.38
10 “Financing the Resilient City. A demand-driven approach to development, disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation”, ICLEI White Paper, ICLEI Global Report 2011, p.11.
11 All publications available at www.teebweb.org, including the manual for local policy makers.
12 Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), on the basis of Defensoría del Pueblo de Perú (2008) [online] www.defensoria.gob.pe/conflictos-sociales-reportes.php; and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Latin America and the Caribbean: Environment Outlook, Panama City, 2010.
14 For more information on JNNNURM, see the case study in the Local Sustainability 2012 case study series.
15 See the case of Iida, Japan in Local Sustainability 2012 Case study series for an example of citizen-funded energy infrastructure project.
16 “A Digital Agenda for Europe”, COM (2010) 245 final/2, Brussels 26.8.2010.
17 For more information on co-production in the context of local governance, see “Co-production of services. Final report”, Local Authorities and Research Councils’ Initiative 2010 (www.rcuk.ac.uk/documents/innovation/larci/LarciCoproductionSummary.pdf
18 [Ssemambo, J. “Participatory knowledge generation for resilient cities: sustaining urban planning in practice. The Kampala experience”, Presentation given during Resilient Cities 2011 The 2nd World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change (4 June 2011), resilient-cities.iclei.org/fileadmin/sites/resilient-cities/files/Resilient_Cities_2011/Presentations/E/E2_Ssemambo.pdf
19 “Municipalities Overseas. Canadian Municipal Engagement in FCM’s International Programmes”, FCM 2010, p.11.
20 “Egypt orders dissolution of Mubarak-linked councils”, Reuters 28 June 2011 af.reuters.com/article/egyptNews/idAFLDE75R0QX20110628.
21 Brugmann, J., “Local Authorities and Agenda 21”, in: Dodds, F. (ed.), “The Way Forward. Beyond Agenda 21”, Earthscan 1997, p.109.
22 “International Guidelines on Decentralization and the Strengthening of Local Authorities”, UN-HABITAT 2007.
24 “Plan of Action on Subnational Governments, Cities and Other Local Authorities for Biodiversity”, UNEP/CBD/COP/DEC/X/22, 29 October 2010.
26 Arikan. Y., et al.,“carbonn Cities Climate Registry Annual Report. Local Response to Measurable, Reportable, Verifiable Global Climate Action”, Bonn Center for Local Climate Action and Reporting – carbonn, Bonn, 2011.
27 “Localizing the Millennium Development Goals. A guide for local authorities and partners”, UN-HABITAT 2006, p.4.
28 Satterthwaite, D. (ed.), “The Millennium Development Goals and local processes – hitting the target or missing the point?”, IIED 2003, p.19.
Published by :
ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability
Leopoldring 3, 79098 Freiburg, Germany
In Partnership with :
Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind
United Nations Human Settlements Program UN-HABITAT
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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.
To dowload the complete study : local2012.iclei.org/local-sustainability-study/