It often seems like we can’t escape from grim news about climate change or the impacts of global warming and the sense that national commitments or international protocols either don’t do enough or won’t be met. Or maybe it feels like we can’t escape from the polarising effects of the politics of climate change at worst or competing urgent political priorities at best.
At the personal level, some can’t shift the feelings of guilt or anxiety or that we’re not doing enough to make a difference. Or that no matter what we do, it won’t make any difference.
Between the middle grounds of the national and the personal is an often overlooked player in climate change: local government. And local governments around the globe are making a real difference.
Last week, Global Local team members were at the ICLEI World Congress – an international gathering of local governments supporting sustainability. It was both inspirational and deeply pragmatic, with not only examples of leadership in technical or infrastructure solutions but also heavy emphasis on social inclusion and community participation. Councils around the world are focusing on how to improve the lives of their communities sustainably and how to deal with the effects of climate change by working with citizens and their democratically elected leaders.
Every place is different. Each place has its own unique challenges, which require targeted solutions that councils around the world can build on. These barriers may be geographical, legal, or historical.
For example, in Quito, Ecuador, a topography of steep ravines must be both worked with to provide corridors for nature-based solutions and bridged to provide social connection and mobility. In Sweden, changes in social housing law mean that housing associations need to work on a commercial basis, but Malmö has found proven ways to support social and economic development sustainably and profitably. Turku, Finland, is an old city, but continues to commit to radical climate action. To celebrate its 800th anniversary in 2029, the city has committed to becoming carbon neutral. Having already made huge strides, Turku is using bottom-up approaches to decarbonise daily life by becoming a forerunner in the circular economy. It’s using existing frameworks from ICLEI and further developing the tool for use by other places.
These are just a few of the many examples shared at the ICLEI World Congress. In a post-conference event later this week, we’ll be talking with our team of experts, colleagues from the International Centre for Local Democracy (ICLD) and fellow members to explore global best practices and identify common action points and gaps to be addressed. You can register for the event here (Thursday 19 May).
Other local government speakers also impressed us at the ICLEI World Congress with their insightful, creative and inspiring approaches to addressing local climate impacts. Katja Dörner, Mayor of Bonn, Germany, described the city’s efforts to engage local people in climate policy, by creating climate forums with randomly selected residents to bring different perspectives together and by getting involved in the global Transition Town initiative. The city worked with climate scientists to develop goals with clear reduction steps. It will host the Daring Cities virtual forum in October. Speakers from cities in Sweden, India and the Philippines discussed how they are facing the shared global challenge of plastic waste from involvement in the product design stage, to awareness campaigns, sorting, collection, and operating municipal facilities.
Annika Strandhäll, Swedish Minister for Climate and the Environment, emphasised how addressing inequality and tackling the cost of living crisis is a vital part of climate action in her address:
“Climate change risk requires an extraordinary transformation to society. This transformation will provide plenty of opportunities – new industries, and new technologies are constantly developing. This is all good, but there is something else we must also understand. Some people find the rapid change required of us to be threatening, and it’s difficult to achieve true sustainability if you don’t have the support of people. That’s why I want discussions on climate change to focus more on equity. I believe strongly that people who are more economically secure will be much more open to the concrete and transformative changes that are necessary to make society climate-friendly. Equity and climate are closely intertwined, and that’s why I hope that the discussion on rising inequalities, affordable housing, segregation and poverty will also continue among those who are involved with sustainability.”
Having targets is not enough: achieving real reductions in carbon emissions can only be achieved by changing the way that we produce and consume. While regulation can provide effective sticks (and carrots) for large scale industries and economies, daily habits change by encouragement, reinforcement and supporting an improvement infrastructure that helps making better choices easier. Only local government touches all the aspects of where we live, has consultative and democratic decision making at its core and understands the barriers and benefits of individual neighbourhoods and places.