Local sustainability enters the mainstream

Ania ROK, Stefan KUHN, 2012

ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability

This section presents a short history of the term “Local Agenda 21”, from its sharp rise in usage in the 1990s to its gradual decline in recent years, in which it has been increasingly replaced with other, often local, terms. Fortunately, in stark contrast to the term that symbolized its beginnings, the local sustainability movement is growing fast, spanning thousands of cities across all continents.

1 - Local Agenda 21 and other terms

From the very beginning the term “Local Agenda 21” was met with mixed reactions. Some countries, particularly those that established strong national campaigns, embraced it from the start and it remains the main reference point for their local sustainability processes today (e.g. France or South Korea). Others have never used it. Three key factors can be identified that determine the use of the LA21 term:

Who is afraid of local sustainability?

In the United States the term “Local Agenda 21” never really took off. Even the term “sustainable development” was initially met with scepticism. Some local governments considered it part of “unintelligible non-profit jargon” and the word “development” struck them as going in the opposite direction to sustainability. Since the early 2000s most local governments refer to their activities in this field using the term “sustainability”. However, for a small but vocal minority of Americans terms like “climate change” or “sustainable development” have become synonyms for the attempt to introduce central control over natural resources, limiting the freedom of the individual in an unacceptable way. Therefore, these terms and campaigns associated with them are often viewed with hostility and fear.

One of the first countries worldwide to take up Local Agenda 21 broadly and develop a national programme was the United Kingdom. However, the UK also serves as an example of a country where the label under which local governments were instructed to pursue local sustainability initiatives changed frequently. Defined by a strong central government, repeatedly new programmes, strategies, plans and policies have been introduced, focusing on different aspects of sustainability in line with changing national priorities.

Twenty years after adoption of Agenda 21 local initiatives for sustainability are taking place all over the planet under many titles and labels. This gradual move away from the original “Local Agenda 21” label in many places is an indication that local sustainability has become an established policy area, and thus more and more local governments use local political language in place of the original UN jargon.

2 - The emergence of a global movement

Even though, for reasons mentioned above, we are not able to estimate a number of local sustainability processes underway, there are strong indications that the last decade has witnessed a sustained growth in the local sustainability movement.

One way of estimating the popularity of local sustainability initiatives is to look at the multitude of international and regional associations and schemes that have further developed or appeared in recent years. ICLEI, which is the largest international association of local governments dedicated to sustainable development, has today about 1200 members in over 70 countries. There are a number of strong regional associations dedicated to sustainable urban development, such as Energy Cities that represents over 1000 European cities and towns working on sustainable energy management. In 2005, soon after the Kyoto Protocol entered into force, the Mayor of the City of Kyoto founded the World Mayors Council on Climate Change, an alliance of committed local government leaders that now counts over 60 members. Newcomers, such as C40, founded by 18 big world cities to work on climate issues, seek to cater to the needs of specific segments of cities. The African Local Agenda 21 Cities Network is to be launched in December 2012, during the 6th Africities Summit in Dakar, Senegal. Sub-national governments also organize for sustainable development, with the global Network of Regional Governments for Sustainable Development (nrg4SD) launched in 2002, following the Johannesburg Summit, and R20 Regions for Climate Action founded in 2011.

New campaigns, often backed by international organizations, are being launched, as the examples below outline. With over 3000 local government signatories to date and covering almost a quarter of the EU-27 population, the EU-backed Covenant of Mayors can play a key role in achieving its emission reduction targets. In the US more than 1000 mayors have signed the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement since 2005, vowing to reduce carbon emissions in their cities below 1990 levels, in line with the Kyoto Protocol.

Local sustainability has been integrated into the mandates of virtually all organizations and associations that work with cities, such as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Citynet, Metropolis, Eurocities or national municipal associations. Same could be said for international donors, both multilateral and bilateral, that increasingly support sustainable development on the local level, often through twinning programmes.

Counting local sustainability processes

A surprisingly low number of countries collect reliable data on local sustainability processes. The examples presented below prove that, if well taken care of, the seeds of local sustainability can bear fruit quickly. In Korea, where the first Local Agenda 21 process was started in 1995 in Pusan, today 86% of local governments have established Local Agenda 21 Councils. In the US, 600 ICLEI members represent nearly 30% of the US population and sustainability is high on the local agenda, with 80% of the biggest cities in the US citing it as one of their top five prioritiesi. Spain, thanks to the strong involvement of the regional administration, has 3763 active Local Agenda 21 processes, involving almost half of the Spanish municipalitiesii. In France, where the Local Agenda 21 movement started only towardst the end of the nineties, there are today almost 850 Local Agenda 21 processes, covering 70% of the “communautés urbaines” and more than half of the regions and departments.

These impressive numbers represent the widespread commitment of local governments to sustainable development. However, moving from commitment to action still remains a challenge for many local governments, for a number of reasons that will be further explored in this study.


Published by :

In Partnership with :

  • Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind

  • United Nations Human Settlements Program UN-HABITAT

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This study would not have been possible without the contributions made by a number of experts from all around the globe who shared their knowledge with the authors in the form of both written and oral answers to a set of guiding questions. We extend our gratitude to the staff of the following organizations and individuals:

  • ICLEI Offices: Africa Secretariat, European Secretariat Japan Office, Canada Office, Korea Office, Mexico Office, Oceania Secretariat, South Asia Secretariat, Southeast Asia Secretariat, USA Office, World Secretariat.

  • Regional and Country Offices of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme UN-HABITAT: Arab States Region, Burkina Faso, Central America, China, Indonesia and Pacific Island countries, Latin America and Caribbean Region, Sri Lanka, Western Balkans.

  • Further: Africa: Johan Nel (North-West University, South Africa), France: Ministry for Sustainable Development, Association 4D, Japan: Katsutaka Shiraishi (Ryukoku University), Hidefumi Imura (Yokohama City University), Korea: Korean Institute Center for Sustainable Development, Latin America: Francisco Alarcon (Finland).

The study was financed by the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind, Lausanne (Switzerland), the German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Protection and Nuclear Safety, and Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt DBU. Its publication was supported financially by UN-HABITAT.

To dowload the complete study : local2012.iclei.org/local-sustainability-study/