The power of diversity: How local action can deliver on the global goals

This week in New York, heads of state and government have come together at the UN headquarters for two dedicated Summits on climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As they gather at the highest political level to support and guide the sustainability agenda through the SDGs, political leaders are recognizing that real implementation happens on the ground, at the local level.

An international framework like the SDGs is like a library: a solid, wide body that provides tidy, categorized and easily-accessible shelves. But this library is only as useful as the books it contains. They can be of various shapes, colors and geographical origins, and even focus on different themes, but ultimately, they are what enriches the library and fulfill its purpose. The books stand for local action on SDGs: different initiatives tailored to specific context or geographical area are, in essence, the driving and implementing forces of the SDGs.

In all corners of the world, the ICLEI network is bringing the global goals to life.

Wooden straws and insulated houses: two examples from Japan’s ICLEI Members

Through its SDGs Action Plan, Japan celebrates “regional revitalization” by promoting local government initiatives that are working towards the achievement of the SDGs. Two were recently featured as the country’s SDGs Future Cities: Sapporo and Yokohama.

Located in a cold and snowy region, Sapporo City has established strict standards for highly insulated and airtight houses to reduce heat-leaking. More than half of the newly built houses meet Sapporo’s insulation criteria, which is above the national requirement and has co-benefits such as increased resilience to winter heat-shocks and a reduction in seasonal allergies. In addition, the city is aiming at introducing district heating-cooling systems to reduce its overall CO2 emissions.

Among several sustainability projects of Yokohama City, the Wooden Straw Project is perhaps the one that touches people most directly. These wooden drinking straws are made of timber sourced from forest thinning, the practice of removing selected trees to improve the growing conditions of the remaining. Not only does this project raise awareness on the issue of plastic pollution and single-use plastic straws, it also draws attention to sustainable forestry.

Localizing the SDGs the South African way

“We do not implement the SDGs, we implement programmes and projects to achieve them.”

This is, in brief, the message that ICLEI Africa launched at the recent SDG Symposium for South African municipalities, where it announced a partnership with the South Africa’s Department of Cooperative Governance to formalize their commitment supporting the localization of the SDGs.

According to the 2019 Sustainable Development Goals Report, South Africa currently ranks 106 out of 156 countries on the SDG index. This new partnership aims to support all levels of government in South Africa to see how they can best work together to localize the SDGs.

Local governments are a crucial partner in this work. After all, people are at the heart of the SDGs and local governments are best positioned to achieve them. The Symposium challenged local municipal officials to view the localization of the SDGs not as a reporting burden, but rather as an enabling framework within which existing efforts can be captured as contributing to achieving the Goals.

To support local implementation, ICLEI Africa launched a new roadmap for localizing the SDGs focusing on four key steps: awareness and understanding, strategic embedding, implementation, and finally, monitoring and reporting. This roadmap can serve as an example of how to work towards the SDGs for local and regional governments around the world.

Brazil’s subnational governments leading sustainability

Brazil’s subnational governments are stepping up their commitments and engagement with the SDGs. For example, the State of São Paulo recently incorporated the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs in its 2020-2023 Multiannual Plan, a public document that serves as an instrument of transparency and participation of the population in the planning of the state government. This crucial step not only aligns public discourse to the sustainability agenda, but also links the budget to objectives, ensuring that funding is in place to support the localization of the SDGs. The State of São Paulo is also actively tracking progress on all 17 SDGs (read the full report).

The City of Rio de Janeiro is also advancing its Sustainable Development Plan by integrating programs and projects from different departments to leverage synergies between mitigation, adaptation and inclusion agendas. All actions are specifically aligned with the SDGs and the city’s 2050 vision.

The European “local renaissance”

The cities of Bonn, Germany, and Ghent, Belgium, are just two of the many European municipalities that are tailoring the implementation of global frameworks to local communities.

As host city to the UNFCCC, the ICLEI World Secretariat and countless other international organizations and initiatives, Bonn is an international sustainability hub. But while working to advance the SDGs internationally, the city is also focusing on supporting the implementation of the SDGs at home. From events like the Bonn SDG days that raise awareness through activities such as Cycling Action Day and an SDG pub quiz, to avoiding single-use plastic items in festivals and increasing transportation options, Bonn is implementing global commitments at the local level.

The similar goal of localizing global commitments is under way in Ghent, Belgium, where multi-level governance and citizen inclusion are changing the city’s food system. After establishing a food policy council and launching small-scale initiatives on sustainable food consumption, Ghent has achieved a decrease in food waste and is tackling inequality by saving and redistributing food that would otherwise be wasted: over a 10-month period, 19,000 people in poverty have benefitted from 300 tons of healthy food. While reducing waste, the city is also improving the sustainability of its food supply chain which has led to a boom of local food production that directly benefits farmers.

The diversity of this local action around the world clearly shows how global frameworks like the SDGs both need local support and benefit local communities.

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