Getting Global: The Hidden Power of Local Leadership
Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014 explores the role of local governments in global solutions
Washington, D.C. -- Local governments around the world are sending a clear message: we are concerned about climate change impacts, we are taking action ourselves, and we are calling on national governments to increase our joint efforts. Over the last two decades, the role of local governments in international governance has been growing. But can local actions result in global change? Contributing author Monika Zimmermann, Deputy Secretary General at ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability, showcases the powerful momentum of local governments in the global effort for sustainability in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability.
Local pioneers for sustainability. “Local and regional movements form a strong coalition of the concerned and are by no means simply subordinate arms of national governments,” says Zimmermann. Local governments are often faster than national governments to take action on environmental initiatives. Even as national governments were still discussing the Kyoto Protocol, for example, many local governments had already agreed on targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent.
How can local governments act so quickly? For cities and regions, “voluntary cooperation…and the common commitment to providing good living conditions for people are more relevant than defending abstract national interests,” says Zimmermann. Thus, global cooperation across local governments is largely free of national politics and interests. “The stakeholders know each other, trust can be built, and potential failures have limited impacts.”
A growing international role. Since 1990, city and regional leaders have come together through organizations like ICLEI—Local Governments for Sustainability to serve as counterparts to national governments and the United Nations. As many local governments become concerned about the increasingly discussed failure of global governance, leaders across cities and towns are looking for opportunities to strengthen their impact.
“To the extent that national interests have allowed, UN organizations and the global processes under their influence have been supportive of this newly born movement in civil society,” says Zimmerman. “Local actors…have mirrored global efforts at nearly every stage and have often stimulated the debate among nations with their own commitments.”
Unleashing local potential. Innovative local sustainability actors have demonstrated that action is possible, even when progress is slow at the national level. Leading local governments are guiding and inspiring other cities and regions to engage in sustainability projects. However, bringing these innovations into the mainstream will require national laws and incentives.
“The strategy of global targets and global 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,” says Zimmerman.
Often, local activities are underfunded and, even as many local governments invest in voluntary action, sustainability goals could be reached more quickly and efficiently through national standards and adjustments to economic conditions, such as energy prices.
Cumulative local actions can lead to global change. The challenge remains to reframe the global governance system to encourage and unleash the potential of cities and regions in order to reach our universal environmental and social goals.
Worldwatch’s State of the World 2014 investigates the broad concept of governance for sustainability, including action by national governments, international organizations, and local communities. The book highlights the need for economic and political institutions to serve people and preserve and protect our common resources.
State of the World 2014’s findings are being disseminated to a wide range of stakeholders, including government ministries, community networks, business leaders, and the nongovernmental environmental and development communities. For more information on the project, visit http://www.worldwatch.org/state-world-2014-governing-sustainability.