Listen. Include. Empower. How local communities take central stage at COP26

Subnational governments have found their home at the Multilevel Action Pavilion at COP26, a place for debate, knowledge exchange, and success stories of subnational climate action and collaboration. As the Pavilion’s motto “Time4MultilevelAction” suggests, collaboration between all levels of governments and different stakeholders must now become the new normal. That spirit was fully embodied by the session “Putting people at the heart of international climate action – a participatory approach” on 4 November.

Presenting the early efforts of Scotland, Màiri McAllan, Scottish Minister for Environment and Land Reform, described how the first climate justice fund launched by her government dated back to 2012 and was aimed at building resilience within communities. Yet, these types of funds and initiatives, she continued, need a regular reality check to make sure they remain relevant as society and climate challenges evolve. After all, they are designed to help vulnerable communities, while at the same time remaining democratic and inclusive.


Why is community participation so important in local climate adaptation work?

Al Dutton, Director of Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, dug deeper into the matter. Climate justice can’t happen without the people for whom this justice is intended: “We cannot presume to speak on their behalf or make decisions on their behalf” if we ourselves are not part of those communities, said Dutton. We do need to help the money flow where it is needed the most, but those resources must fund assets and initiatives that are actually useful to the local people – and for that, we have to ask local communities.

This stance was echoed by Julius Ng’oma, National Coordinator for Civil Society Network on Climate Change in Malawi, who highlighted how communities can understand their potential, express their needs, and even take care of their own issues if they are enabled and empowered to do so. In any other case, we risk imposing wrong solutions ‘from above’ – that make perfect sense on paper but fail in practice – or spending time and resources to discover what these communities already knew. Additionally, any built asset or infrastructure needs to be regularly maintained; only if communities are included from the beginning, will they be able to carry out proper maintenance.


For the planet and for the people

Tying climate policies to the needs of the local communities was not just the focus of one session; it has been a silver thread throughout many sessions of the Multilevel Action Pavilion. For instance, during “Redesigning economic systems for just, circular and nature-based cities” on 5 November, different subnational government representatives presented various initiatives on the circular economy, nature-based solutions, and climate justice; all with a focus on leaving no one behind.

Glasgow, UK is pushing ahead with its ambitious Glasgow Green Deal, a nine-year mission to transform the city’s economy to tackle the climate emergency and become net-zero by 2030. The Deal aims at scaling up efforts to decarbonize and build resilience to climate change, in a way that creates jobs, shapes high-quality places for local communities, and tackles poverty. In other words, a policy for the people and for the planet.

Turku, Finland’s oldest city, is sprinting towards carbon neutrality by 2029, with the aim of becoming climate-positive afterwards. Such a high level of ambition requires a transformation of the economic system, from the linear Take-Make-Waste model into a circular one. To that extent, Turku has not only been working with stakeholders across various sectors and levels of government but also with its residents. For example, through the “1.5-degree life” program, youth and local communities help educate all residents on the benefit of the city’s climate goals, as well as guiding them through actions that they can take to contribute to these goals.

Porto, a city with a strong industrial heritage, is integrating circularity in the city’s strategies as a fundamental principle of nature. The Circular Porto 2030 plan gathers several initiatives that rely on public participation, such as the materials bank enabling citizens who are restoring old buildings access to the characteristic materials that shape the city. Porto is also working towards a circular food system, engaging citizens in municipal urban vegetable gardens and organic waste collection.

Last, Maui county, Hawaii went a step further…by looking back. Since the COVID pandemic, Hawaii’s main economic driver – tourism – could no longer lead the way. Following local calls for an economic reset, an inevitable economic crisis was turned into an opportunity to grow a more diverse, sustainable economy. Using traditional Maui’s values, the county pushed environmental protection of wetlands, watersheds, and reefs with the support of its citizens, which in turn benefited from incentives for the local businesses involved in green waste, composting, and waste reduction.

The journeys of these cities have not only been processes of renovating places in decay or installing renewable energy plants. They have enabled people to find their voices and truly understand the climate emergency, all while creating a legacy of people-led development.

The event was co-organized by ICLEI’s Urban Transitions Alliance, a global network of industrial legacy cities committed to sustainable and inclusive urban transitions; ICLEI Circulars, the first platform on circular economy developed specifically for local governments; and CLEVER Cities, a Horizon 2020-funded project to address urban challenges through the use of nature-based solutions.