A Growing International Role

Local and regional governments form a strong coalition of the concerned and are by no means simply subordinate arms of national governments. Local governments from different countries “act locally and argue globally” despite their varied political and economic systems and their often limited range of responsibilities. Their global cooperation is largely free of the usual patterns of national politics, interests, and approaches; almost all local governments that engage in international cooperative processes do so in a relatively open-minded fashion and by prioritizing joint goals, such as climate protection, biodiversity preservation, and sustainable resource management. The divide between industrialized and developing countries plays a much lesser role among local governments than among their respective national governments. When local leaders address the UN, they consciously do it on behalf of local governments in general rather than on behalf of a distinct group of developing countries such as the G77.

The reasons are straightforward. Sustainability is a common priority, and many representatives of local governments show strong commitment and leadership. The voluntary cooperation of the more-informed and interested, and the common commitment to providing good living conditions for people, are more relevant than defending abstract national interests. These motivations help explain why local governments often have been faster than national governments to take action on environmental initiatives. After the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, for example, it took local governments just eight months to convene the first Municipal Leaders Summit on Climate Change and to launch the ICLEI Cities for Climate Protection Campaign. It took national governments 13 years to put in place the global implementation mechanism, the Kyoto Protocol, and even then the United States, the largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) at the time, failed to ratify it.

Similarly, local governments often show greater commitment and readiness to implement the goals and targets of international agreements. In particular, the advanced, forward-looking, and well-run local governments have proven that their sustainability commitments are not limited to isolated local actions but are taken within a global context and with the explicit goal of helping to reach globally set targets. If national governments would recognize and take active advantage of this tendency, they could reach their commitments more easily and more quickly.

The role of local governments in the global sustainability debate has widened over the last 20 years. Until the late 1980s, local governments did not factor significantly in global debates, nor were they seen as transnational actors. Although a relevant “twin-city” movement existed, it focused primarily on peace building and on cultural people-to-people interactions. Bilateral exchanges were prioritized, supported to some extent by national governments and a few existing global organizations for subnational governments. The International Union of Local Authorities, most strongly anchored in the Anglo-Saxon world and in central and northern Europe, took a more multilateral approach, while the United Towns Organisation, anchored in the French-speaking countries, focused mainly on partnerships between Russian and European cities (both organizations are now part of UCLG). International cooperation among multiple municipalities around specific themes was rare.

The founding of ICLEI by some 200 city leaders in September 1990 in New York marked a significant change: for the first time, elected city officials decided to build an international city organization for what we now call “sustainability.” ICLEI's mandate from the start was to (1) network among environmentally concerned local governments globally, (2) motivate and support local governments to (jointly) act locally in areas of global concern, and (3) link local action to global UN processes. The creation of ICLEI was the key local government response to the emerging notion of sustainable development, as coined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987.

ICLEI strongly influenced preparations for the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Summit, by proposing wording for what became Chapter 28 of Agenda 21, the conference's key outcome document. The chapter called upon local governments worldwide to engage their communities in the development of a “Local Agenda 21,” which gave birth to the global Local Agenda 21 movement. (See Box 14–1.)

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