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ICLEI around the World: Steve Gawler, Regional Director, Oceania

Q. What is one important particularity of working with local governments in the Oceania region? 

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Steve Gawler, Regional Director at ICLEI Oceania.

One important thing to bear in mind is that the Oceania region is effectively 2-3 distinct regions. Australia and New Zealand, as developed countries, are fairly similar, with similar cultural backgrounds. But they have different geographies and histories, so it’s not always realistic to think that one program will work for both countries. Beyond this, though, there are the Pacific Islands. Working with the islands is a new experience for us, and it’s difficult because they tend to be the least developed, with the fewest resources and the biggest vulnerability to climate change. They have a low capacity partly because they are so small: Kiribati, for instance, is a country with 57,000 people, which in most countries would qualify it as a small town. So the national government serves as both a national and local government, with a huge range of tasks. Our contact for mitigation and adaption to climate change might be someone who works on that area for half a day per week.

Q. What is the best example of a successful project that ICLEI Oceania has facilitated or helped to implement?

If we ask anyone in Australia or New Zealand, they will tell us that it is Cities for Climate Protection. Oceania was one of the most successful regions in this respect, and it received good funding from national governments. The coverage is a particular feature of the program: it captures 80-90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from councils in the country. And it left a legacy: after the funding finished, the specialist teams remained in place.

More recently, the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) has been very effective. This is a unique approach to climate resilience planning, focused on local governments rather than communities. ICLEI won the contract to help 40 Asian cities with the program. We have just finished, and we have hit all of the targets. Our staff provides technical support and assistance, but it’s the local governments that have to collect the data and analyze it.

Q. During your time at ICLEI, how has the landscape for local governments changed? 

In the 1990s, climate change really dominated the debate. Now we have emerged into a more holistic mindset, with resilience figuring highly in the agenda. Local governments are also developing a better grasp of how things like procurement and mobility are vital for sustainability. We’re seeing a more sophisticated understanding. There is also greater recognition of local governments from other key sectors – not across the board, but at some points. Local governments are part of the mix in an increasing number of global mechanisms.

Q. What impact do you think the COP21 agreement will have, at a global level and for ICLEI’s work? 

The Paris Agreement will make a big difference. With national governments having made firm commitments to reduce emissions, we are already seeing the Australian government, for example, look around for partners. For the first time that I can remember, ICLEI has been approached by a national government to see how we can help them achieve their target.

However, local governments still have limited capacity and many other day-to-day priorities. Also, while we often focus on the pioneering cities, there is a long tail: maybe 80 percent of local governments do not yet have the capacity or appetite to tackle climate change. So we have to be careful not to assume that everyone is at the same point.

Another issue is that, in some countries, national governments deliberately restrict the power of local governments. In the Philippines, decentralization legislation was passed 15 years ago, but local governments were not given the legislative mechanisms or the funding to act as they wanted.

In countries like Australia and New Zealand, we see more of a cycle. New governments will periodically restrict funding to local governments, which squeezes capacity. For instance, Melbourne is affected by a state policy that that caps the taxes that the local governments can collect. This means that the local governments lack capacity – when we ask them if they are interested in joining, for instance, the Global Lead Cities Procurement Network, they tell us that they are interested but do not have the staff to manage it.

On a more positive note, the kinds of collaborations and networks that emerged before and during COP21 have proved to be a great selling point. Something like the Compact of Mayors, for instance, which has been endorsed by the United Nations and is driven by Michael Bloomberg, is an attractive proposition for cities. At the moment it is appealing only to the more progressive cities, but I think we will see a trickle-down effect. And this applies to initiatives around EcoMobility, 100% Renewable Energy, and procurement too.