From Paris Agreement to Habitat III: A Global Preview of Sustainability in 2016

According to the Mayan calendar, 2015 was to be the year of the apocalypse. While the Earth did not stop turning, global achievements on sustainability in 2015 certainly marked a turning point for the world, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. These achievements constitute a new beginning for global efforts on sustainability, enabling a revival of the spirit and vision laid out at the Earth Summit in 1992. Despite this slight delay of 23 years, the progress serves as a fitting farewell to Maurice Strong, the key architect of this vision, whom we sadly lost in this same year.

The Paris Agreement that emerged from COP21 was a momentous step forward, uniting all nations for action on all aspects of climate change. The Agreement both acknowledges the need to engage with all levels of governments, cementing the previous COP decisions for local and subnational governments in 2010 and 2013, and refers to the role of non-party stakeholders in the implementation. Both of these provisions strengthen the inclusive nature of the global climate regime, which is one of the most original features of the Paris Agreement.

2015 also saw the adoption of a Sustainable Development Agenda towards 2030, including 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – one of which (Goal 11) is dedicated to sustainable cities and human settlements. The SDGs will apply universally to all UN member states, and are considerably more comprehensive and ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which focused only on developing countries and poverty eradication. While nations are committing to leave no one behind in the implementation of SDGS, they should also let everyone be inspired by the pioneers, in particular those advancing the sustainability by implementing Agenda 21 since 1992. The SDGs will pave the way for a fully transformative agenda if they are considered as the floor, not the ceiling, and if the ambitions of today are mainstreamed as the norms of tomorrow in every community and jurisdiction.

Other key achievements in 2015 were the adoption of a 2030 agenda for disaster risk reduction, which has a stronger vision to engage and empower local governments, and a new vision for financing for development, which – for the first time since the 1990s – has a vision to mobilize resources for municipal investments, in particular focusing on environmental management in developing countries.

After this significant progress, 2016 will be the year for implementation of all these new visions.

On the UN General Assembly related processes in New York, the top priority will be the design of an effective monitoring framework of the implementation of 2030 SD Agenda under High Level Political Forum, including the indicators of SDGs, as summarized in the freshly released synthesis report of the UN Secretary General.

On the climate front, it will be important to increase the momentum by raising the level of ambition and accelerating action. At the global level, the number and diversity of governments signing the Paris Agreement on 22 April will indicate the willingness of national governments to stick to their commitments announced at COP21. The role the Climate Action 2016 Summit will play ten days after the ceremony, the performance of the COP Presidency Champions and the implementation of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda outcomes in synergy with the UNFCCC process will be key events and processes to follow. At the local level, increasing commitment and compliance with the Compact of Mayors and accelerating the Transformative Actions Program will be the priority. It is possible to expect that the mid-year conference – SB44 in May in Bonn and COP22 in November in Marrakech will have much less heat, as the UNFCCC is expected to gradually focus on implementation rather than negotiation. On the way to COP22, Climate Chance – Climate Actors World Summit in Nantes in September would serve as an opportunity to advance the dialogue and collaboration among non-party stakeholders, building on the practice in 2015 in Lyon.

The 2nd UN Environment Assembly in May in Nairobi and 13th Conference of Parties of Convention on Biological Diversity in December in Cancun will be other highlights of the year.

Obviously, the governance of the whole process is one broad issue that will occupy most of the debates this year. The choices for the posts of Secretary General of the United Nations, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, and Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Change Secretariat will be significant, as individuals do shape the roles of these institutions in the new global governance and vice-versa.

Meanwhile, the global advocacy of local and subnational governments will particularly focus on Habitat III – the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development – which will take place in Quito, Ecuador, from 17 – 20 October 2016. Habitat III will focus on defining a new global Urban Agenda for the first time in the history of the United Nations since 1945.

Habitat III – The New Urban Agenda

Habitat III is the third in series of conferences that began in 1976. The series began in response to a growing recognition of the challenges and opportunities of rapid urbanization. Habitat I took place in Vancouver from 31 May to 11 June 1976, while Habitat II was held in Istanbul from 3 to 14 June 1996.

In the period spanning the Habitat conferences, the issue of urbanization has been mainly dealt with as an issue that was limited to the Global South, with discussions focusing on housing or slums.  This was also the era when local governments did not have the necessary means to strongly influence debate at the national and global levels.

Thus what is “new” in the Habitat IIII “New Urban Agenda” is the fact that the United Nations as a whole will discuss the issue of urbanization in its entirety for the first time – a slightly ironic fact, given that cities all around the world have been hosting generations of humankind for thousands of years.

2016’s conference will be different from previous Habitat conferences in many ways. As was shown in the SDGs and at COP21, national governments have turned the global sustainability agenda into mainly a bottom-up process of national decisions. However, thanks to the enormous advocacy efforts of local and subnational governments and their networks over the years, national governments have also recognized that, in the urban world of the twenty-first century, any progress on sustainability will largely be dependent on success in cities and regions, whose capacity will be doubled in the next 40 years.

Habitat III therefore offers governments the chance to create a New Urban Agenda, integrating all facets of sustainable development to promote equity, welfare and shared prosperity, specifically focusing on the places, territories and communities to which these global goals relate.

However, it is yet to be seen how nations will engage with local and subnational governments in the design of this “New Urban Agenda”.

Since the 1992 Earth Summit and the Habitat II agenda in 1996, ambitious local and subnational governments have built significant knowledge, expertise and connections on climate action and sustainability. These must be valued and tapped.

Habitat III should therefore enable the UN to create a new era of collaboration in institutional relations. It is vital that multi-level, multi-stakeholder partnerships emerge from Habitat III, offering strong supporting mechanisms for cities to implement sustainability initiatives aligned with Goal 11 of the SDGs, the Paris Agreement and other sustainability fora.

It is up to national governments at Habitat III to adopt a holistic and ambitious approach to sustainable urbanization, globalizing and advancing the spirit, culture and practice of sustainability planning and Local Agenda 21 and its legacy on all fronts. Such progress will require strong stakeholder engagement supported by an innovative multilevel governance. If this can be achieved, the New Urban Agenda can be a pivotal mechanism to ensure the transformation of our world towards a sustainable future.

As the longstanding voice of local sustainability in the United Nations fora, ICLEI will continue to play a prominent role in the negotiations and processes towards, during and after Habitat III. In addition to its mission as an accredited observer, ICLEI will share its views and collaborate with other partners through its engagement in the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments, the Global Assembly of Partners, the Cities Alliance Joint Work Programme, the Communitas Coalition, and others. In Quito, ICLEI plans to gather its Council and Global Executive Committee under the leadership of Park Won-Soon, Mayor of Seoul Metropolitan Government and President of ICLEI. These meetings will be hosted by Mauricio Rodas, Mayor of Quito and Member of ICLEI Global Executive Committee.


Featured photo of the Climate Summit for Local Leaders at Paris City Hall, 4 December 2015. (c) ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.