By Gino van Begin, Secretary General, ICLEI
A quarter century after the European Secretariat of ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability was set up, transformative action by its network of cities, towns and regions continues to define new ways of thinking and acting to advance sustainable development across Europe
Over the past 25 years, ICLEI has demonstrated that environmental action is inextricably linked with more sustainable economies and more equitable social dynamics.
The idea to establish a network of local governments was born in 1989 when 35 local government leaders from Canada and the United States jointly decided to establish local laws to address a pressing issue: rapid depletion of the ozone layer. ICLEI was created to coordinate local responses to pressing global environmental issues. From the start, ICLEI represented a movement of local governments ready and willing to think about the long-term implications of their development.
In 1992, ICLEI established its European Secretariat in the City of Freiburg after a competitive selection process. When the competition was launched, Freiburg, located on the doorstep of France and Switzerland, had just won an award as the green capital of Germany. The city has a long track record of sustainability initiatives, and is a proactive player that works closely alongside the European Secretariat of ICLEI to this day.
But Freiburg is just one actor in the larger story of how sustainable urban development is taking hold across Europe. Today, ICLEI Europe collaborates with cities, towns and regions from all over the continent and has more than 160 official members from 35 countries. The local and regional governments across the ICLEI network in Europe–and globally–have put sustainability at the centre of their mandate. They continue to transform urban life and reshape the urban environment.
When the European Secretariat started out, it focused on environmental issues, and has continued to shift and expand its efforts to ensure local transformations mean a better quality of life that respects the limits of local and global resources and ecosystems. While protecting the environment still lies at the heart of its activities, the scope and agenda across ICLEI Europe cuts across many aspects of urban life.
Over the last two and a half decades, ICLEI Europe has provided technical support to its members, and launched campaigns and organised conferences to publicly push for action on key issues like climate change, renewable energy and sustainable public procurement. Now, ICLEI Europe has leveraged its position as a leader in sustainability to lay out a new development pathway for European towns and cities through the Basque Declaration.
The Basque Declaration is, at its core, a framework of principles for transforming European society into a conscious and environmentally responsible community. It suggests 15 guidelines for action that align with the global Sustainable Development Goals, New Urban Agenda and the intent of the Paris Agreement. It calls for sociocultural, socioeconomic and technological transformation to ensure that the transition to a more sustainable society becomes something deep, lasting and systemic. ICLEI has always had a comprehensive vision on sustainable development and has argued that environmental resources are crucial for social and economic development, while their mismanagement and exhaustion pose a threat to global systems. And in critical efforts to tackle climate change and other key challenges, ICLEI Europe has also developed several lines of action in areas such as mobility and transport, waste, water, integrated management, urban governance, intelligent technologies or nature-based solutions.
ICLEI Europe continues to join forces with its members and strategic partners to advance local and regional sustainable development. Throughout this last quarter century, European cities, towns and regions have taken a giant leap forward. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go. Reducing energy consumption, increasing the use of renewable energy, creating sustainable transport systems, protecting our natural resources and ecosystems, creating resilient cities and improving air quality are key to guaranteeing a safe future and better urban life for the generations to come.
ICLEI Europe continues to address key issues to policymakers, providing expertise and facilitating the exchange of good practices between its members and partners to help local and regional authorities get on, and stay on, the right track: towards more sustainability and thus more resilient, more inclusive and healthier and happier communities.