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How Local Governments Have Become a Factor in Global Sustainability

Monika Zimmermann

Growing population and urbanization are increasing the relevance of cities and local governments to the problems of sustainability. Half of the world's population now lives in cities, a share that is projected to increase to 75 percent within the next 30 years or so. A city such as Mumbai, India, governs more people than any of the 150 smallest United Nations (UN) member states. This intensifying urbanization will require the construction, within the next 40 years, of urban capacity, buildings, and infrastructure equal to all that has been built in the last 4,000 years.

Countless cities will be affected strongly by climate change, while remaining obligated to provide basic human services and secure the feeding of their populations. Yet at the same time, their formal powers, portfolios, and resources are relatively narrow. Even countries with explicit decentralization processes shift far more duties than opportunities to their local governments. The emerging importance of local governance raises some critical questions: Can cities, towns, counties, metropolitan areas, and other local units govern themselves and their social and economic development in ways that maintain, save, and improve the natural resources and ecosystems that enable all development? Can local governments influence national and global governance toward sustainability? And even more relevant: Do their actions result in global improvements?

Understanding how local governments have become a factor—maybe the key factor—in global sustainability efforts in recent years can help clarify the current discussions around climate governance, the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and the role of cities in achieving them, and urban sustainability in general.

Locally Global

“Local government” refers to public administrative units—the lowest tiers of government—and includes provinces, regions, departments, counties, prefectures, districts, cities, townships, towns, boroughs, parishes, municipalities, shires, and villages. Their leadership is locally elected or appointed by higher administrative authorities.

In recent years, common concerns about environmental protection and sustainable development have driven local governments to cooperate more closely across countries. This increase in international cooperation is related in large part to local governments' involvement in the global sustainability debate. The global role of local governments dates back only two decades or so—a measure of how the world has changed.

Several globally relevant organizations, such as ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), are open to all interested local governments and are involved in global advocacy processes and improvements in global and local governance. Other groups, such as Metropolis, offer participation or membership to selected cities according to size (e.g., number of inhabitants). Networks focused on thematic and regional city cooperation include CITYNET in Asia, Mercociudades in Latin America, Eurocities in Europe, and Climate Alliance and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group in the field of climate protection.

The growing movement of local governments is paralleled by a similar phenomenon among regional governments, some of which have also formed global organizations based on similar visions and concerns. Among the best known are nrg4SD (Network of Regional Governments for Sustainable Development) and R20 (Regions of Climate Action).

Local and regional governments are often referred to as“subnational governments,” but in many cases their character is mixed. Examples are the German city states, like Berlin, or highly urbanized states like São Paulo in Brazil. Within global geopolitical processes such as transnational negotiations and agreements, local and regional governments often cooperate closely and perceive themselves as counterparts to national governments and to the UN system. In part this is a necessity, as the multilateral system of cooperation among sovereign nations, the UN system, and related mechanisms do not define a role for local governments; they are instead perceived as part of, and represented through, their respective countries.

Defining a role for local governments within the debate on global governance for sustainable development is a challenge that many countries hesitate to take up. Meanwhile, many local governments are concerned about the increasingly discussed failure of the current mechanisms of global governance, especially (but not solely) the UN structure. (One 2011 proposal from ICLEI suggested convening a group of “United Actors” in parallel to the United Nations for an upcoming climate change conference, with local government taking a lead convening role and anchoring the United Actors in a future participatory framework for global environmental governance.) In general, limited progress at the level of national governments suggests both the need and opportunity for a much stronger role for cities and towns.

 
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