Be the change: How Southeast Asian cities are reimagining citizen-driven climate action

The need for ambitious and inclusive climate action is urgent. With the climate crisis accelerating at an unprecedented rate, the question is no longer what needs to be done, but how our actions can be most effective and efficient. 

There is no simple solution to the climate emergency. Climate action is an iterative process of communication, collaboration, self-evaluation, learning, and open-minded exploration that moves closer to local solutions. Driving this action requires consistent effort, and cities cannot afford to be complacent in ensuring a sustainable future. 

ICLEI’s Ambitious City Promises (ACP) project made the case that citizens and stakeholders can, and should, drive local climate planning and implementation. ACP’s name describes the outcome — a decade of local climate actions compiled in City Promises ‒ but this was really a project about reimagining the process and changing mindsets. 

For four and a half years, ICLEI led project cities in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam through co-creating visions of inclusivity and bold action with their citizens. The theory of change focused on three key pillars: empowering citizens, facilitating city-to-city exchange, and making inclusive climate promises.  

Through the project, Jakarta, Pasig City, and Hanoi, each produced a City Promise, with demonstration projects, stakeholder pledge platforms, and stories of bottom-up engagement as proofs of concept along the way. Read the full report to learn more about their respective journeys.

The need for ambitious climate action in Southeast Asia

Cities across Southeast Asia are not only experiencing the challenges of rapid urbanization but are also particularly vulnerable to the threats of climate change. In the face of these parallel challenges, citizen engagement and empowerment becomes even more critical in order to co-create climate action that will curb emissions while promoting sustainable communities.

Each of ACP’s member cities has its own story and motivation for joining the project. Many are located in low-lying areas susceptible to sea-level rise. Some cities are keen to reimagine waste management approaches, while others are focused on curbing air pollution. In the end, all are striving towards a sustainable future by increasing the pace of climate action and contributing to related national and global goals. 

Indonesia: Jakarta, Bekasi, Tangerang

Jabodetabek, the largest metropolitan region in Southeast Asia and the world’s second most populous, features the Indonesian capital of DKI Jakarta and two satellite city partners, Bekasi and Tangerang. Home to 31 million people – and counting – Jakarta is simultaneously sinking, growing, and increasingly vulnerable to flood risk, while generating enough waste to stretch the region’s landfill in Bekasi to capacity. Increased manufacturing activity in Tangerang and economic growth across Indonesia leaves Jabodetabek delicately balancing incentives in its push to co-create a low emissions development pathway. 

In the face of these challenges, Jakarta is focusing on reaching residents in meaningful ways to raise awareness about the climate crisis and informing citizens what they can do to protect the environment. Read more about how Jakarta’s religious leaders united to engage their congregations in climate action.

Philippines: Pasig, Marikina, Parañaque

These three cities in Metro Manila often cooperate as part of the 16-city National Capital Region. Metro Manila is as dense as Mumbai and as susceptible to tropical storms as New Orleans, yet has a relatively modest emissions profile. The Philippines sees mitigation as a path to adaptation, and Pasig City has led local governments looking to welcome new stakeholder engagement approaches. Marikina (a manufacturing hub) and Parañaque are particularly striving to incorporate innovative waste management and urban greening practices. 

For Pasig City, business as usual is no longer an option. Read more about the bold goals set out in the Promise of Pasig

Vietnam: Hanoi, Soc Son, Son Tay

Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi exemplifies the challenge of balancing rapid urbanization and low emissions development. Air pollution is a top priority in a city with nearly as many motorcycles as people, plus traditional methods of cooking and crop disposal that eject ash into the air. The Hanoi People’s Committee joined ACP in revisiting its preexisting action frameworks, with the aim to co-create emissions reduction methods and strategies to implement across the sprawling capital. Unlike institutional arrangements in ACP’s Southeast Asian peers, the city of Hanoi actually encompasses the rural Soc Son and Son Tay Districts, having annexed both in a 2008 expansion of Hanoi’s boundaries.

Read how Hanoi is planning to reach its goal of quadrupling green space through co-designing public spaces with local communities.

A new theory of change, promises, and empowerment 

Both the process of formulating locally-specific climate action policy and the theory of engagement differentiate this project. ACP was able to leverage ICLEI’s knowledge brokering and convening capabilities in spreading the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s climate action strategy ‒ a co-created ‘City Promise’ ‒ to Southeast Asia. 

Peer exchange was inherent to the project design. The Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) created the ‘City Promise’ climate action strategy in 2015 to actualize Paris Agreement objectives for local governments. Seoul has been able to outpace South Korea’s national emissions reduction targets, and is leading its national peers in their quest to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

ACP sought to transfer the idea of a ‘Promise’ that connotes a different relationship to goal-setting. The project wagered that if stakeholder engagement was the process to design City Promises (versus an afterthought), then climate action pledges would better reflect citizens’ daily realities, motivations, and capabilities, and engender a newfound sense of collective accountability. This method is by no means a silver bullet, but it empowers and motivates stakeholders to spread visions of climate action in their local communities. 

The project recognized how education and behavioral change could spark knowledge sharing from unconventional sources. Project city governments learned from their citizens, national and international peers, and most importantly each other, through a series of collaborative engagement activities. Whether it was expert meetings with SMG, joint meetings among model cities, a European study tour, visits to national peers, or rounds of public consultations, each city had the opportunity to learn from and contribute to its fellow project members. By continually opening the door to their own communities, local peer governments, and global thought leaders, city governments were able to co-create and triangulate solutions most applicable to their contexts. 

What’s next?

Southeast Asian cities are set to continue their rapid expansion that necessitates an integrated, stakeholder-driven, and proactive urban management approach. 

At the ACP Final Workshop, held on June 25, 2021, project cities and supporting partners gathered to celebrate the project outcomes. ICLEI Secretary General, Gino Van Begin, shared his vision as part of the ceremonial handover of each city’s Promise. “I believe that our cities are well equipped to meet their commitments, and are set to make strong contributions in the global push towards climate neutrality. It is our hope that the cities that are with us today will embolden fellow local and regional governments across Southeast Asia, as well as globally,” he said. 

The days of settling for underwhelming emissions reductions are over. Now, local governments are diving into the complex process of climate action with an open mind to new ideas and an open door to citizens. 

Read the final report to learn more about the outcomes and achievements of Ambitious City Promises.

Ambitious City Promises is implemented by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability and funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) through the International Climate Initiative (IKI).