Do cities make a difference in global environmental governance?

4 Juin

By Cássia Marques da Costa[1]

The UN Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992, represented the world’s willingness to put the environment and sustainable development as priorities in the global agenda. The Rio 92 was emblematic for its capacity to mobilize civil society and a whole set of actors that wanted to be represented and really have a say in the global debates about the environmental governance. Also important was the recognition of the main role of local governments as a means to address sustainable development. Twenty years later, cities want to show the world they can make the difference and why they must have a voice in the institutional architecture of the contemporary international order.

Why cities? Local governments as actors in environmental governance

As an outcome of the international debates initiated in Stockholm in the early seventies,   at the Rio Earth Summit, the issue of urban environmental problems was definitely put on the international agenda. By the claim of “think globally, act locally”, cities became enrolled into the environmental governance through the development and implementation of the Local Agenda 21. In fact, the Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 highlighted the centrality of sub-national governments as major actors for environmental protection stating that Because so many of the problems and solutions being addressed by Agenda 21 have their roots in local activities, the participation and cooperation of local authorities will be a determining factor in fulfilling its objectives. (…).  As the level of governance closest to the people, they play a vital role in educating, mobilizing and responding to the public to promote sustainable development.”

Since then, local authorities have become more involved with environmental issues and gained relevance within other multilateral institutions, suggesting that changes have been made in the ways environmental governance is being put into practice.

Local authorities are perceived as key-actors in environmental governance for some practical reasons. First, they are capable to cooperate more easily with other governments than States and they do this through faster and direct communication mechanisms, such as networks, joint projects and other initiatives, including engaging relevant stakeholders and lobbying national governments. Second, local governments have the conditions to formulate and implement policies that express more clearly citizens’ aspirations and real needs. The proximity to the population promotes incentives (and also constrains) for the provision of public services that are at the same time efficient and adequate to the local context, making feasible, at least in theory, the elaboration of prompt solutions to local problems. Third, there is the component of delegation related to sub-national governments. In most countries, mainly in federal states, the responsibility to guarantee the provision of basic services such as sanitation, waste management, public transportation and energy use rests in some degree under local government’s authority. This condition empowers cities with the ability to legislate and decide on a whole set of policies that are directly associated with the environment protection.

These factors turned cities into global environmental arenas and local governments into actors with the capacity to act for the benefit of the environment and to exercise influence in ways that directly impact the ability of national governments to reach targets that they have agreed to internationally.

How do they work? Exercising leadership through networks

But sub-national governments have not been enacting environmental governance in isolation. One of the key features of the post-Rio era has been the proliferation of transnational networks of sub-national governments. The main network-leaders in this area are the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), but there are several other initiatives of local governments networking around environmental issues. ICLEI counts with more than 1,200 sub-national governments as members and is acting as the Local Authority Major Group co-organizing partner in Rio+20. The C40 network comprises 58 large cities from around the world committed to implementing climate-related actions locally and also plays a big role in climate change discussions because of its capacity to coordinate the Mayors of the largest cities of the world, which together represent 1 in 12 people, 12% of C02 emissions and 21% of GDP (data from C40 website).Thus it’s not difficult for one to conclude that the potential of those networks is far from trivial. Networks are key pieces for understanding the means by which cities have been engaged in the global environmental scene and how they can make the difference to sustainable development and poverty eradication.

Rio+20: what to expect from local governments?

Therefore local governments and transnational networks are expecting to demonstrate their potential and also offer their contribution at Rio+20. There will be lots of events happening in parallel to the Conference gathering representatives from local, sub-national, national and international levels to discuss existing initiatives and possible collaboration between the different levels of governance to ensure a sustainable development. ICLEI and C40 are expected to play a big role by joining the voice of those who want the Conference to be more than just the renewal of commitments to sustainable development.

So there seems to be an overall understanding that sustainable development as a global priority has increasingly become a multilevel task, where the involvement and commitment of local authorities is proving essential to achieve any minimum level of success. But despite the noise around cities’ proactive role and leadership (through ambitious proposals and commitments), there’s still resistance concerning local government’s capacity to implement and measure what they’ve been shouting out loud. In a recent article the formers Brazilian president Cardoso and Norwegian prime-minister Brundtland warned about the State’s failure to demonstrate the necessary courage or political will to turn good intentions into effective collective action at Rio+20.  Cities are trying to demonstrate the opposite. Let´s see if they are really prepared to take this responsibility and make things different. The initiative is definitely worthy.


[1] Graduate Student at the Institute of International Relations at University of São Paulo (IRI-USP), Brazil. (cassiamcosta@usp.br)

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