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Box 14–3. Cities in the UN's Post-2015 Development Agenda

Rio+20, the largest UN conference in history in June 2012, was expected to bring a global Transformation of human civilization by ensuring the sustainability of human societies and global ecosystems. In practice, Rio+20 revised the setting of the global architecture of sustainability efforts by kicking off key processes, including creating a High-Level Political Forum to safeguard the event's outcomes more effectively, initiating development of a universal set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a wider scope applicable to all countries, and addressing the UN Environment Programme as the global environmental authority. (See Chapter 13.)

In 2012, the UN Secretary-General established two new bodies in which local governments hope to play an important role. On the technical level, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) mobilizes expertise from academia, civil society, and the private sector and is structured around 12 Thematic Groups, including one on “Sustainable Cities.” In its report to The Secretary-General's second new body—the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda—this group gave a clear recommendation to develop a standalone goal on sustainable urbanization in the set of SDGs to be developed. One local government leader, Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş, was invited to join the High-Level Panel, supported by the Global Task Force of Local and Regional Governments for Post 2015 and Habitat III, facilitated by UCLG and with ICLEI acting as one of the core partners.

In September 2013, the Local Authorities Major Group, with active participation from ICLEI and UCLG, was invited to organize a Special Event on Sustainable Cities as a side event to the UN General Assembly meeting, indicating the UN's interest in including or at least listening to the local level. U.S. mayor Frank Cownie of Des Moines, Iowa, and Lilia Rodriguez, director of international relations at Quito Metropolitan Municipality in Ecuador, participated as speakers. This was one of the first times that the General Assembly had specifically invited an event on cities and local governments.

The debate over whether to include a standalone SDG on sustainable urbanization (i.e., UrbanSDG) is an important element of the post-2015 discussion. Supporters of the idea, including UN-Habitat, the SDSN, as well as UCLG and ICLEI as core leaders of the Global Task Force of Local and Regional Governments, contend that the process should go beyond localization of SDGs, be based on positive experience in the past (in particular the implementation of Chapter 28 of Agenda 21), and anchor the role of local governments in a key UN document and implementation process. The UrbanSDG would strengthen the provision of supportive international and national framework conditions for local action and help to propel model urban sustainability projects and policies into the mainstream. The discussion of how an UrbanSDG could be formulated and how best to advocate for it is the main goal of the Communitas Coalition for Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements in the New UN Development Agenda, started jointly in 2013 by UN-Habitat, nrg4sd, the Tellus Institute, and ICLEI, and supported by the Ford Foundation.

Source: See endnote 14.

In the end, however, as much as local action can change the world and serve as a motivating and driving factor, it is also true that national governments cannot shirk their responsibilities. Despite the powerful effects of local action, it has limits and ineffectiveness. Even as many local governments invest in voluntary and sometimes symbolic action, in many cases the goals could be reached much more quickly and efficiently through national framework conditions, such as through national laws or building standards and nationally directed adjustments to economic conditions, such as energy prices.

The key to increased recognition and support of local action is better evidence of achievements and impacts. Documenting success and efficiency is the indispensable condition for a transparent verification of relevance. The carbonn Cities Climate Registry is a major step forward in this regard. This online system, developed by ICLEI and available to all local and (soon) regional governments globally, records local commitments, targets, policies, activities, and achievements. cCCR not only is a means to document the relevance and impacts of local action, but also can open doors for local actors taking part in the global carbon market and can increase their access to climate funds and finances.

Even so, in order to support the relevance of local government and local civil society's contribution to the global sustainability targets, better measurements of impacts, achievements, and progress are needed that go beyond mainly describing activities. It is important to identify key indicators for climate change (beyond simply measuring CO2 emissions), as well as for biodiversity, water, and other resources.

The strategy of global targets and local implementation hardly means ignoring the national level. On the contrary, it means mobilizing the energy and creativity of countless subnational entities with their own governance systems—their own leadership, sources of inspiration, resources, understanding of citizens' needs, and local solutions. Cumulative local actions can achieve tangible improvements in global sustainability. The challenge for the global governance system is to understand this huge potential and to form framework conditions within its exchange and decision-making mechanisms that encourage and unleash this potential to achieve direct improvements to our environment, ecological systems, and social well-being.

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