ICLEI at the UN High-Level Week: Local Governments as the ‘Rescue Plan’ for the SDGs and climate

Each year in September, the heart of global diplomacy beats in New York City for the UN General Assembly meetings. This year, Heads of States are additionally expected to renew their commitments on sustainability and climate through the Sustainable Development Goals Summit (16 – 19 September) and the UN Secretary General’s Climate Ambition Summit (20 September). These Summits are particularly critical considering we have just seven years left to deliver 2030 climate and sustainability goals, for which overall progress is worryingly lagging.

This blog was written by Yunus Arikan, Matteo Bizzotto, León Díaz-Bone, Madison Hodges, and Kale Roberts, from ICLEI World Secretariat.


Local Governments as the ‘Rescue Plan’ for the SDGs

Ten years have passed since nations decided to align two major global processes: the first worldwide vision for sustainable development in the 21st Century, kicked-off through Agenda 21 in 1992 in Rio, and the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) that kicked-off in 2000 (and which were applicable only to the global South until 2015).

When these two global visions merged at the Rio+20 Summit, the body driving the process, called the Commission on Sustainable Development of the Agenda 21, was replaced with the High-Level Political Forum. The “HLPF” gathers respective Ministers every year — and Heads of States every four years. In 2015, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) towards 2030 were adopted. Which brings us to 2023, when nations are gathered in NYC for the 4-year, heads-of-state-level forum to conduct a half-time assessment towards SDG implementation.

While SDG 11 aims to “make cities and human settlements resilient and sustainable,” public services that local and regional governments provide (such as education, food, waste management, healthcare and more) are instrumental to all goals. From this point, SDG and High Level Political Forum engagement followed the organization of Agenda 21. Subnational constituencies engage with the Forum through the Global Task Force of Local and Regional Governments, with the United Cities and Local Governments as its Secretariat and ICLEI as a founding member.

The SDGs Reach Their Halfway Mark

As we reach the mid-term review of the SDGs, the UN reports indicate that only 14% of Global Goals have seen some progress, whereas 50% of them have even witnessed backsliding. Against this backdrop, during the SDG Action Weekend, held 16-17 September with a wide range of stakeholders, the UN Secretary General announced 12 transformative initiatives — including SDG localization, to be led by the Local2030 Coalition, with ICLEI connected via our role with the Global Taskforce.

Integrity Matters at the Climate Ambition Summit

Unlike the High Level Political Forum and its status as an official, recurring event of the United Nations General Assembly, the Climate Summits in New York were designed to be as-needed, individual initiatives of the UN Secretary General, giving the UNSG a chance to push Heads of States to overcome deadlock.

Given that these Summits are special initiatives, each are designed with specific formats independent from both the UNFCCC and the UN General Assembly mechanisms. To catch you up:

  • The 2007 Summit aimed to support the Copenhagen COP15 in 2009.
  • At the 2014 Summit, the focus was on stakeholder commitments ahead of Paris COP21 in 2015 — giving birth to the Compact of Mayors, with ICLEI as one of the founding members.
  • In 2019, the focus was raising the ambition of the nationally determined contributions through stakeholder partnerships, where ICLEI contributed via the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy

Now, in 2023, the UN Secretary General has emphasized transparency and accountability of climate neutrality commitments as his priority. These expectations apply to both national governments and stakeholders, the latter to be aligned by recommendations of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Expert Group released last year.

Key Outcomes for Cities and Subnationals from the Week

ICLEI is actively participating at the UN High-Level Week 2023 through an active agenda and a  delegation of 30+ mayors, governors, and local leaders to ensure subnational governments are driving progress on transparency, finance, and justice. For the SDG Summit 2023, ICLEI supported the agenda and the mobilization of the Global Task Force of Local and Regional Governments. ICLEI in its capacity as the Focal Point to the UNFCCC’s Local Governments and Municipal Authorities (LGMA) constituency group to bring forward several key outcomes:

In addition to these constituency-based engagements and participation at numerous events, below are the 3 specific agendas that ICLEI led this week in New York City.

1. Action on the ground

On Monday 18 September, we highlighted “resilience in action,” through a resilient infrastructure tour in the City of Hoboken, New Jersey, a longtime ICLEI Member located across the Hudson River from New York City.  Mayor Ravi Bhalla as ICLEI USA Board member showed an international delegation of local leaders howHoboken has taken strides to increase resilience to coastal flooding and unveiled its new ResilientCity Park, complete with 5 acres of public open space amenities and the capacity to detain up to 2 million gallons of stormwater. The City of Hoboken is also part of the Cities Forward initiative supported by the U.S. State Department in partnership with ICLEI USA, ICLEI South America Secretariat, and ICLEI Mexico, Resilient Cities Catalyst, and Institute of the Americas.

2. Partnerships for climate emergency solutions

On Monday 18 and Tuesday 19 September, ICLEI supported the second systemic innovation workshop of the UN Climate Change Global Urban Innovation Hub, which aims to move beyond business-as-usual solutions and explore innovations that will respond to the climate emergency. ICLEI´s Research and Innovation Agenda, as well as the annual Daring Cities Forum for Urban Leaders taking on the Climate Emergency since 2020, proved to be the backbone of ICLEI in this process.

3. Multilevel Action

ICLEI continues to advocate for multilevel action by speaking at the United Nations’ “Coalitions led by the local and regional government constituency: Scaling up acceleration of the SDGs” event. Additionally, ICLEI Secretary General Gino Van Begin pushes to elevate the voice of subnationals by speaking on the Transatlantic Climate Bridge’s panel discussion “City, State and Global Diplomacy – Bridging the subnational and international in global climate diplomacy.

By demonstrating the power of city-to-city diplomacy, local contributions to major global agendas, and highly credible climate ambition, ICLEI and our partners in the LGMA showed UN High Level week that cities and subnationals are the solution. In words borrowed from the UN Secretary General at the SDG Summit, “localization is the rescue plan for the SDGs.” Following on the heels of the Global Stocktake’s Co-Chair’s troubling assessment, we also know local governments are the rescue plan for the Paris Agreement as we close in on the final weeks before COP28.