With Habitat III finished, what are cities’ next steps toward implementation?

As COP 22 begins, three recommendations on how to get from good documents and commitments to work plans on sustainability — and quickly.


The Habitat III conference wrapped up last month in Quito, Ecuador, where nations adopted the New Urban Agenda — a 20-year vision on sustainable urbanization.

The agenda sets an important precedent: For the first time, national governments fully embraced much of the language on local sustainable development that has been used by local and subnational governments for the past 20 years. On the other hand, the New Urban Agenda is not yet the landmark turning point we hoped it would be.

The document does include ambitious language. It also established, albeit at the last minute, a crucial link with the process of “localizing” — or figuring out how to locally implement — the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the U. N.’s overarching framework that will guide anti-poverty efforts over the next 15 years.

Many were looking to the New Urban Agenda to offer specific guidance on localizing the SDGs. Unfortunately, the new document does not contain details as to how these goals should be translated, implemented and monitored at the national and local levels.

Thus, in order to use the agenda as a tool to deal with the many intertwining challenges related to urbanization and development, its text needs to be translated into a meaningful roadmap for sustainable urban development.

[See: How to globalize the sustainable city]

How will we know if Habitat III has been a success or not? Nations will soon begin a series of steps by which they will decide how to monitor and evaluate progress on the New Urban Agenda. That process should be finished in two years, and by the end we should be able to assess the real success of Habitat III. Also by that point, hopefully, national authorities will have come up with innovative modalities for engaging local and subnational governments in the U. N. system, as well.

Eventually, the New Urban Agenda should set the course for coordination across all levels of government on the implementation of global frameworks. But in the meantime, there are several important actions that local governments can take to start moving decidedly toward the implementation of the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda — and indeed, many are already doing so.

ICLEI has defined three strategic actions that local governments can take, starting tomorrow.

Three actions

1. Establish local commitments.

“At COP 22, nations will gather to discuss how to translate their Paris commitments into roadmaps for climate action. But they also need to show leadership by rapidly and substantially scaling up their climate pledges and actions, including clear steps on climate finance and resilience.”

It’s important to develop a local strategy, identifying where current plans already align with the SDGs and the actions that could be taken to increase that alignment. This is, for instance, what New York City and Freiburg, Germany, are doing — developing plans and strategies to translate the SDGs in terms of their current and pre-existing commitments and programmes.

An important component of the strategy is also for local authorities to screen all the SDGs systematically, in order to identify gaps and thus needs for additional policies and action.

[See: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

It also may be useful for city officials to appoint a liaison or set up an international relations office. Doing so not only helps to ensure that local action is connected with global goals but also provides important feedback to global processes, detailing the real implementation that is taking place on the ground.

Equally important will be to start building the political capital and commitment necessary to push forward sustainable development policies. This can be done by creating campaigns and movements across the political spectrum in order to ensure continuity of action, regardless of changes in the leadership of administrations through elections.

Similarly, local authorities can immediately start developing multi-stakeholder partnerships with local businesses, civil society and academia.

2. Seek sustainable and innovative financing mechanisms.

Cities will need to be proactive, looking at innovative ways to self-finance — for instance, through green bonds. They also should work to better position themselves to attract financing by improving communications around existing commitments and actions on SDGs implementation, and by showcasing progress and potential for further advancement. This is what the cities of Seoul and Malmö, Sweden, are doing, for instance — organizing forums on SDGs and knowledge-exchange opportunities. (Malmö is hosting such an event later this month.)

[See: New solutions to close the gap on municipal finance]

Local governments also can advocate for more and better financing opportunities. ICLEI’s Transformative Action Program (TAP) is one important way to connect potential funders and cities with high ambitions and low resources.

3. Raise awareness and advocate for support.

City leaders can explain the SDGs to citizens and all stakeholders, including local and multinational business, aiming to mobilize them to participate in their implementation. They also will need to put pressure on national counterparts so that they put in place enabling frameworks and inclusive approaches in defining national strategies for SDGs implementation.

[See: First step for cities on the Sustainable Development Goals: making people aware of them]

Finally, local leaders can seek to develop urban sustainability alliances engaging a variety of stakeholders. This would help giving momentum to concerted local action to implement the SDGs.

Urgency of now

This week, the next round of international climate talks — known as COP 22 — begins in Marrakech, Morocco. Given that this event is taking place just a few weeks after the New Urban Agenda was approved, we are reminded of the importance of convergence.

“It may be useful for city officials to appoint a liaison or set up an international relations office. Doing so not only helps to ensure that local action is connected with global goals but also provides important feedback to global processes, detailing the real implementation that is taking place on the ground.”

From a local governments’ perspective, in fact, the climate debate and the sustainability debate must go hand in hand. Their connection is clearest when from global agendas and conferences we get to the business of implementing commitments and developing local plans of action.

[See: How the New Urban Agenda fits — and doesn’t — with global climate and anti-poverty agreements]

While the momentum of urbanization, especially in the developing world, proceeds unabated, the world has just crossed the ominous threshold of 400 parts per million of carbon-dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. Senior climate scientists warn us that keeping global average temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius — the aim adopted in the Paris Agreement last year, which came into effect this month— is already very unlikely. Meanwhile, developed and developing nations are locked in a quarrel on climate finance that threatens to disrupt the major steps taken in Paris last year.

COP 22, which runs 7-18 November, has been announced as an “implementation” event, where nations will gather to discuss how to translate their Paris commitments into roadmaps for climate action. But they also need to show leadership by rapidly and substantially scaling up their climate pledges and actions, including clear steps on climate finance and resilience.

However, even if global temperature rises to “only” 2 degrees C, we stand to face drastic climate change in the form of rising sea levels; increased likelihood and destructive power of floods, storms, droughts; as well as food shortage and water shortage crises.

Our cities will bear the brunt of this shift in climate, and we must be well prepared.

Ambitious cities and regions have been at the forefront of sustainable development and climate action for a long time. One needs only consider what has been achieved by cities small and large on improving transport, air quality and access to basic services. Likewise, look at the potential for climate action hinted at by the 600-plus entities reporting reductions of 1 gigaton of carbon emissions to the carbonn Climate Registry.

[See: Cities to receive new, ongoing focus in official climate research]

However, we need to greatly scale up and widen the scope of the movement for local sustainable development. While new cities sprout everywhere and old cities continue to grow, we need to make sure that an increasing number of them get on the fast track to sustainability and climate action. Organizations such as ICLEI can play a role in helping define how we can get from good documents and commitments to work plans for the next couple of decades.

In fact, the question is no longer whether local governments will be instrumental in ensuring that the New Urban Agenda and the SDGs are successfully fulfilled, as it’s by now clear they will play such a role under the Paris Agreement. The new question is how local and subnational governments will be represented at the table for the purposes of consultation, decision-making and implementation of the whole process. The complexities of the work to be done makes clear that in the coming decades, all levels of government will need to be brought together on the planning and implementation of any urban agenda.

[See: Habitat III forum calls for city-level targets on sustainable energy]

Thus, from the process that will discuss how to implement the New Urban Agenda, we expect at least four things:

1.     Greater engagement of local governments in laying out plans of actions and roadmaps for the implementation;

2.     Periodic review of progress and a clear set of monitoring tools;

3.     Indications of ways to finance this necessary transition to sustainability; and

4.     Convergence of existing global processes, including the New Urban Agenda, the SDGs, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement.

While we advocate for COP 22 to mark the start of a process of rapid implementation of increasingly ambitious climate goals, we need to start laying the foundations for a series of long-overdue conversations on how to enact sustainable local development. We have two years to do that. Let’s not squander this opportunity.

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Gino Van Begin

Gino Van Begin is secretary general of ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability.