‘It’s through local government that you can get big shifts,’ says U.N. point person on sustainable development

Where does the United Nations see mayors fitting into the new implementation discussion on climate and sustainable cities? An interview with David Nabarro, the secretary-general’s special adviser on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Mark Garten/UN Photo

Cities are receiving major focus at international climate talks currently taking place in Morocco, the first formal follow-up to last year’s successful adoption of a new global accord to seek to contain global warming.

Yet climate action is just one part of a broader new push by countries around the world to bring new attention to issues of sustainability. A little over a year ago, countries met at the United Nations and adopted the landmark Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aimed at eliminating extreme poverty and improving equality worldwide. And last month, those countries came back together to agree on a roadmap for implementing the SDGs in cities, a 20-year strategy document called the New Urban Agenda.

As can be seen from this flurry of action at the multilateral level, anti-poverty and climate action are increasingly being seen as interlinked, and cities as a strategic place of overlap.

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

If that effort has a cheerleader within the United Nations, it’s David Nabarro, the secretary-general’s special adviser on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (of which the SDGs are a core part). The British physician, a former executive director of the World Health Organization, has tackled diseases from malaria to Ebola to Avian flu. Now he is tasked with galvanizing support for the SDGs, one of the major legacies of U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who leaves office at the end of this year.

Citiscope spoke with Nabarro via telephone earlier this month as the latest round of climate talks, known as COP 22, got underway in Marrakech, Morocco. This interview, which took place before the U. S. presidential election of Donald Trump, has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Scruggs: How does the New Urban Agenda fit into the efforts to implement the SDGs?

David Nabarro: I see the New Urban Agenda absolutely as a major component of subnational implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Now, of course, these constructs that seek to bring together ideas about the future of people and the future of our planet are given various titles. They are ways of formulating a mix of ideas to represent what increasingly local governments, national governments, activists, businesses — basically a large forum of concerned citizens — would like to see done in our world to make it a satisfactory place to live for people in years to come. The language that we use to describe it is great, but what really matters is what that language actually represents in practice.

The Sustainable Development Goals generally, [and] the New Urban Agenda specifically, are about changing the way that we all think and work in order to get the world to where we want it to be by 2030 — new ways of thinking and working that are obviously low-carbon, focus on resilience and improve equity, so that we get less massive variations in degrees of wealth.

We need to work within the context of local governments, especially. That’s why we were so keen to strengthen the Subnational Climate Action Hub [created at last year’s Paris climate talks] and also to work with cities and local governments. Because people are very much engaged in local government, and we’re seeing more and more that it’s through local government that you can get big shifts via a combination of awareness, actions and activism.

[See: Cities, regions to form five-year vision on climate action]

Q: There’s been some criticism of the New Urban Agenda that the language of the agreement didn’t provide a mechanism for action — it doesn’t have goals and targets, for example. What do you see as the high-level strategy to create local-level implementation of the 2030 Agenda?

A: There’s no need, when you’ve already got targets that have been set around goals for the future. In this case, you’ve got the 169 targets in the Sustainable Development Goals. There’s not, in my view, value in creating more targets just for the sake of doing so. What really matters is that you use agreements, meetings and gatherings to help people align as fully as they can behind the existing goals and targets that have been developed through many years of negotiations.

I think the fact that the New Urban Agenda is clearly linked to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with its 17 goals and 169 targets is just right. I’m kind of relieved that we didn’t have a whole stack of extra targets that might have confused people.

Q: Speaking specifically of the SDG goals and targets, one of the remaining issues yet to be fully resolved are the indicators. Most of the indicators for SDG 11, the “urban SDG”, are not yet finalized, nor is there a requirement that data be disaggregated to a more granular level. Where do you see the data discussion going?

I’m pleased that groups have actually started to help cities establish comparable data sets, like the World Council on City Data. If you think back 10, 20 years ago, data that were disaggregated was a rarity, and now this is becoming very much where we’re all trying to get to. But you don’t start having disaggregated data until you’ve got the goals and the targets that encourage disaggregation, which is what we’ve got through the SDGs.

Some of the SDGs built on the MDGs [the Millennium Development Goals, which were replaced by the SDGs], so the data were already quite widely available. Others, like the urban SDG, Goal 11 — it’s a new goal, and so I’m not surprised it’s taking a bit of time for people to get themselves organized to have disaggregated data to help us look at what’s happening in urban areas.

[See: Can we actually agree on indicators to measure urban development?]

Secondly, just because something’s difficult to measure doesn’t mean that you don’t try to measure it. The reality is that many of the things that we want to look at are tough, and so what I’m suggesting is that we recognize that work is going to be needed to develop the measurement systems — which means indicators, methods for collection of data, methods for disaggregation of data and methods for analysis of data.

So that’s all work in progress, and I’m not at all anxious about the fact that it’s taking a bit of time. I’d much rather that people focused on this, worked on it, discussed it and developed it. What’s great, as far as I can tell, is that in the communities of people who are focusing on the New Urban Agenda, there’s a huge amount of attention to data.

Q: The COP 22 climate change meeting is ongoing, and one of the outstanding issues related to the Paris Agreement remains the state of the USD 100 billion dollars in funding that the developed world is reportedly going to redirect to the developing world. To what extent do you anticipate some portion of that funding being earmarked for local-level projects that can support the 2030 goals around climate change?

A: That really depends on what’s the most effective way to use the money. What is important: One, COP 22 is taking place at the most amazing time, when the COP 21 Paris Agreement has come into force. I don’t think any of us were anticipating this would happen at all, and is a sign that there is a real willingness of governments in much of the world to take climate change seriously and to act on it in an effort to try to achieve a world that’s less than 2 degrees hotter.

[See: Where does the New Urban Agenda point on localizing climate action?]

Number two, I was really pleased that in the pre-Marrakech meeting, there was some careful attention to the issue of climate finance. This is quite a big figure that’s being sought, but it’s a figure the developing world very much is counting on, and I’m glad that there’s been some progress on that.

Thirdly, I’m really pleased that in these meetings taking place in Marrakech there will be a focus on local government action. That is important to me, because some national or local action is going to make a lot of difference as it comes into play.

Q: Cities argue that they are poised to act more quickly and go beyond national governments on the issue of climate change. When it comes to the SDGs, do you think that a similar argument is valid?

A: I disqualify that remark by saying some cities are poised to act rapidly on some aspects of the 2030 Agenda, and that is exactly as it should be. There will always be unevenness. Nations will reflect the total integration of what’s happening in a number of subnational areas, because some cities or local government areas will move quicker than others — the national average will be different.

The whole point about all this is that we need to be sure that people, in whatever level of administration, are empowered to move. There are some aspects that smaller administrations, cities and local governments can move on more rapidly and more substantially than the nation, whereas there are other areas where you need the nation to set the trend and then everybody follows. There’s absolutely no generalization.

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

In addition, not all cities or local governments will move at the same pace. That’s why, in my work, I’m really keen to encourage individual and community action, local government action and national action, in line with the SDGs, and to recognize that there are differences and to stimulate those who will move quickly — and also to encourage those who move slower, so that they catch up. In that way, I believe we will get progress.

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