As Europe is set to play host of COP23–in Bonn, Germany–, Nick Michell spoke to Konrad Otto-Zimmermann, First Regional Director, ICLEI Europe which is celebrating its 25th anniversary
How and why did ICLEI originate?
Environmental and peace activist Jeb Brugmann had noticed that single, local industrial plants and cities can have a global environmental impact. If local governments took effective action to limit pollution, and if many local governments joined forces to do the same, this could have a positive impact at global scale, an “impact that the Earth would notice”. Jeb got UNEP North America, the Center for Innovative Diplomacy and the International Union of Local Authorities to co-sponsor the first world congress of local governments for a sustainable future, which was held in New York City in September 1990. On the last day of this congress, ICLEI was founded by the representatives of 200 local governments present.
ICLEI then took up three functions: as an association it has built an ever increasing membership of local governments worldwide dedicated to sustainable development; as a movement it has involved thousands of local governments in environmental and sustainability campaigns and programmes; and as an agency it has offered and delivered information services, capacity building and training, research and technical advisory services.
Today ICLEI has 1,500 local and regional governments in its network and operates from a world secretariat in Bonn and 18 regional secretariats and country offices.
What has been the biggest achievement of ICLEI Europe’s 25 years?
I believe that ICLEI’s unique role has been to mobilise and support local governments worldwide in a non-partisan way to develop and carry out local agendas for sustainability and the environment, which are linked to the international community’s agendas such as Agenda 12, the UN Conventions on Climate Change and Biodiversity, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now the Sustainability Development Goals. ICLEI conceived and initiated Local Agenda 21, local climate action and other global campaigns that had not existed before.
In Europe, this translates into the Aalborg Charter, the Aalborg Commitments and now the Basque Declaration in whose development and adoption ICLEI had a crucial role; establishing the European Sustainable Cities & Towns Campaign and the series of European Sustainable Cities & Towns conferences and keeping an integrated view on sustainable urban development beyond the sometimes overwhelming dominance of climate and energy issues.
What were the major challenges you faced during your 20 years at ICLEI?
A non-partisan, upright spearhead organisation like ICLEI is facing a bundle of challenges. First, the resources that are available never match the strong vision, ideas and aspirations. Secondly, the competition among organisations has become fierce. There is little funding available to support convincing, effective initiatives and programmes of an association like ICLEI that operates in many ways similar to an NGO. Governmental funders de ne their own programmes and support projects that are beneficial for them.
Foundations are increasingly running their own programmes competing with those of NGOs that they previously supported. UN organisations go fundraising for projects in competition with NGOs. Yet ICLEI has been growing in terms of programmes, operations, annual budget and staff. We have skillfully maneuvered the white-water and whirls thanks to supportive political leadership, committed staff and an unwavering strategy.
How important has sustainable public procurement been since ICLEI’s awareness raising campaign began in 1996?
Sustainable Public Procurement has come a long way since 1996 and has been one of ICLEI’s most successful programmes in terms of impact. Local governments–many of them ICLEI members–were early pioneers of what has become a widely recognised policy tool, making an impact in a number of areas, from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to driving innovation and financial efficiency. The regulatory framework is much more comprehensive with the new European Public Procurement Directives providing opportunities for achieving environmental and social goals using the powerful lever of public expenditure.
The focus is shifting from awareness raising to implementation, and new trends like procurement of innovation and circular procurement are emerging. Public procurement is becoming more strategic and should become more professionalised as its importance at the political level continues to increase.
While countries move at different speeds, procurement is no longer seen merely as part of the back-office function of the public sector, but as an important policy tool relevant to contemporary social and environmental challenges.
Is the voice of local government now being given more weight in global sustainability related dealings?
I would say that cities and local governments have received, through the hard work of local government associations, an unprecedented formal recognition in in multilateral processes. The UN and various international organisations are inviting cities to the table. This development was supported by many national governments in the past. However, we have recently seen setbacks by some national governments preferring power play over good governance. Frankly speaking, local governments still do not sit at international decision-making tables.
What kind of future do you foresee for ICLEI?
I see a bright future for ICLEI. Sustainability has not been achieved either globally or locally. The political culture seems to be becoming more rough than participatory. National governments still fail to agree on the effective protection of global common goods and to meet multilaterally agreed targets. There is still a long way to go, and if ICLEI hadn’t existed for two and a half decades, it would have had to be founded right now. ICLEI’s work is needed now more than ever and I hope that resources will be made available to unleash the efficiency and effectiveness of ICLEI’s approach to spur local action for sustainability.