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Boosting cooperation between cities to fight climate change

Submitted by on 29 Sep 2016 – 09:40

Mayors and policy makers of more than forty countries from Europe recently gathered in the Basque Country for the 8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns. The meeting was an opportunity for scaling up further cooperation and action plans on how best to create productive, sustainable and resilient cities for a liveable and inclusive Europe. In an interview with Janani Krishnaswamy, Commissioning Editor, Government Gazette, Wolfgang Teubner, Regional Director for Europe, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, outlines his vision for a smarter and sustainable Europe

Smart and sustainable cities are becoming commonplace, with people getting more responsible to reduce global carbon emissions.  Can you explain how Europe aims to achieve the smartness and sustainability in cities?

From my perspective, the topics or buzzwords are commonplace but we are far from reaching a common understanding about the transformations we will have to undergo to become sustainable. If we would like to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, we have to reduce our CO2 emissions to 2t per capita or below. Currently we are quite far away from the benchmark and are substantially overusing the resources. Smartness was originally quite strongly linked to information and communication technology, big data and the combination with infrastructural hardware.

Thereby, it is a means to achieve certain goals that might or might not be sustainable although many had the implicit intention that it should lead to more sustainability. This tension between means and ends and the moving away from a purely technology-based definition is a hot discussion issue at the moment.

What is the significance of hosting a conference on sustainable cities in the Basque Country? Can you elaborate further on the Basque Declaration and its 15 pathways to move towards a more sustainable and inclusive Europe?

I think the significance of hosting a EuropeanSustainableCities and Towns Conference in the Basque Country is the city’s ambitious sustainability goals. The conference focused on transformation towards sustainability and inclusiveness and the Basque Country had gone through a massive transformation in the past 20 years in this direction, and therefore offered many practical examples as well as intellectual inspiration. The 15 pathways point at the well-known need to achieve sustainable societies and that we often focus on technological and infrastructure development.

However, a large part of the necessary transformations are of a socio-cultural and socio-economic nature, which need a comprehensive new thinking. This particularly addresses the activation of the civil society, both in the planning and implementation of change, governance models and education, as well as its economic involvement and the share of resources and opportunities in our societies.  To this end, and also with the help of new technologies, we have to decentralise many structures as far as possible and build from the ground. This will also make energy production and distribution more resilient in the mid and long-term.

How do you think sustainable solutions can be shared between cities? What do you think should be the focus of future debate on sustainability?

Until recently, the sustainability debate has been focussing on expansion and growth as the solution and less on distribution. As soon as we move away from permanent growth, the distribution question comes up much more prominently and it needs to be addressed. This is exactly the point where we need the socio-economic and socio-cultural transformation.

Of course, we are aware that this is an evolution and not a revolution, although the political developments in Europe indicate that the patience of people is not endless and a lot of awareness raising and education has to be done.

What in your opinion is the role of local governments in contributing to national governments to reach the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations?

All goals will have to be implemented on the local level somehow. In an urbanised world, the lives of people are shaped by their urban environment. Therefore cities and urban regions will have to play a key part. Again, the SDGs are thought to be the means to address development and quality of life within the global resource boundaries and are, consequently, in line with an integrated sustainable urban development that we have always promoted.

The critical point is that cities have a high level of implementation power but comparatively little legislative power, and only limited sources of financing. It is for this reason that it is highly important that the legislative frameworks and financial mechanisms are adapted where necessary in order to be supportive of the SDGs and their local implementation.

It is a bottom-up exercise to challenge the relevant layers of government in that respect, as well as a top-down exercise to motivate regional and local governments and trigger action. Towards the end, only a well-organised multi-level governance effort will yield substantial results however, I am sure, there will be strong initiative and push from the local level.

Do cities need to be more involved in policymaking at regional, national and EU level?

With the Committee of the Regions, we already have a formalised body of participation in EU policymaking that also involves cities. However, I think we need more specific occasions for a non-institutional open dialogue on specific topics and issues where local government representatives are really heard and messages are taken into account.

The gap is often between the European Commission, who partly has these dialogues, and the national governments, who are largely influencing the decision but are not necessarily highly represented in such dialogues. There are some emerging good examples that could potentially be replicated, such as the inter-ministerial council on urban development in Germany.

Therefore, yes, cities should be more involved in policymaking but it needs to be ensured that their efforts are also reflected in the resulting rules and legislation. Of course, involving the local level can also help to bring people closer to Europe in the end.

With the Pact of Amsterdam this is decided for now. In line with what I said before, we will have to see how it will work in practice and how effective the participation will be and what kind of results can be achieved.