[Perspectives on RIO+20 > Konrad Otto-Zimmermann ]


Models for Local Government Organizations (LGOs) involvement in a strengthened UNEP


Rio+20 in June 2012 provides the rare opportunity to address sustainable development issues in a unique global setting. In order to address the severe, complex and interconnected challenges that the world is facing, all actors must work together. Only then does the world have a chance to make the changes our planet urgently needs. This entails the involvement of Local Government Organizations (LGOs) in strengthening the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) amongst other relevant fora. LGOs have significant powers in environmental matters and thus can help to implement global agreements, shape policy, and ultimately contribute to safeguarding global common goods. Each local government can only act locally, but when united and working together through global Local Government Organizations, the accumulated impact is significant and should be harnessed by the UN and its member states by meaningfully involving LGOs in a strengthened UNEP.

Two decades after the 1992 landmark Agenda 21 (‘think global, act local’), the world population has grown from 5.5 billion to 7 billion people. The challenges postulated in Stockholm (1972) and glimpsed in Rio (1992) are today fast becoming a reality. To tackle these 21st century challenges, a strengthened UNEP could be a frontrunner in facilitating the full participation of all key stakeholders for sustainable development, and thus harnessing their potential to affect change.

While governments remain crucial actors for environmental issues at local, regional and national scale, and UNEP plays an important role at the global scale, the public sphere alone cannot effect all necessary change alone. Civil society and the private sector have crucial contributions to make, especially in the implementation of decisions and action on the ground.
When the UN Conference on Environment and Development adopted Agenda 21 in 1992, it included a section on “Strengthening the roles of Major Groups”. The nine Major Groups that are recognized in Agenda 21 are Business and Industry, Children and Youth, Farmers, Indigenous Peoples, Local Authorities, NGOs, Scientific and Technological Community, Women, Workers and Trade Unions.

Whilst the involvement of Major Groups has enriched the debates at various UN platforms and brought relevant voices to the table, the current structure demonstrates clear limitations: indeed, these nine Major Groups are very distinct and different from each other in their constituencies, capacities, and roles and mandates, yet they are being treated equally in the UN governance.

Local Governments are unique among those nine groups by being in charge of governing a defined territory and population with powers granted by the National or State Constitution. Local Government is the sphere of government closest to the people and local issues. Typically local governments have the mandate to deal with issues such as land use and development planning, building permits, roads and public transport, water and sanitation, energy and many more which are of direct relevance to the local community. Cumulatively local governments can make a relevant impact on global environmental matters. The combined expertise and viewpoint of local governments should be more appropriately linked to global environmental policy-making.

Local governments are joining together nationally, regionally and globally as Local Government Organizations (LGOs). While each individual local government focuses on its local issues, LGOs are familiar with international issues of relevance to local communities and can therefore help to build a bridge between local and global policy makers.As the sphere of government closest to the people and often democratically elected, local governments often know best or see first which problems are being faced by their citizens. LGOs help to accumulate the information from hundreds of cities, towns and counties, thus helping to highlight topics which merit global attention. With over half of the global population living in cities, urban areas are also causing environmental problems. Around 80% of total global greenhouse gas emissions stem from urban areas, for example.

Today’s cities are designed as extracting, resource consuming systems and often organized in a way, which is not environmentally sound. Low urban density leads to large distances having to be covered, and often the infrastructure entices people to use cars to move around in cities. Designing cities more densely would allow for more environmentally friendly modes of transportation like walking, biking and public transport. Urbanization as such is not new, but its increasing speed and scale have turned it into an emerging global issue. While in 1950 less than one-third of the world's population lived in cities, by 2050 over two-thirds of the world population will be living in urban areas.

The impacts of some environmental crises are first or most directly faced by local communities. Local governments should therefore be heard in global discussions around environmental assessment, early warning and agenda setting in order to ensure that such issues are captured. Moreover, local governments can play an active role in early warning. This could be done via a network of urban observatories, which can serve as UNEP’s “urban sensors” and report new issues and threats to UNEP, in UNEP’s role as global environmental authority with a mandate to keep the global environment under review. The environmental departments of local governments are usually very well aware of local environmental challenges and efforts. LGOs and their associations can serve as a link between these local knowledge hubs and UNEP as the global knowledge hub. Based on this knowledge as well as on local governments’ significant capacity for implementing MEAs, LGOs should be more fully involved in global environmental policy making, including in UNEP’s Governing Bodies. Detailed proposals for how this can be done have been developed.

The limited capacity for global engagement of LGOs should be used in the most political, strategic and relevant cases with an overall focus on comprehensive implementation of global decisions. LGOs and local governments can also shortcut timelines of ratification and transformation of Multilateral Environmental Agreements into national legislation, and of national laws into implementation rules, by “voluntary direct implementation”. Thus, while national governments craft refined legal frameworks, sub-national and local governments can already start rapid implementation on a voluntary but organized basis; an approach one may call “rapid multilevel concurrent implementation”.

One of the proposals for a strengthened UNEP is the establishment of a voluntary review mechanism for the implementation of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). If such a mechanism is established it should include LGOs in its structure. Local and regional governments should also be asked to report and monitor their relevant actions and performance, for example as they are increasingly doing with their climate actions and greenhouse gas emissions. Such an increase in available information and transparency allows others actors and the public to become active and to react to the provided information, thereby contributed to existing soft enforcement of multilateral environmental agreements.

Such LGO monitoring and enforcement should be strategically linked to and coordinated with efforts by national governments and others. Therefore, the UN and its member states should support a coherent reporting and monitoring framework for local and sub-national governments.The UN and its member states should draw on the expertise and possibilities of local and sub-national governments, in particular for rapid implementation. Rio+20 in June 2012 provides a platform to make the desired and necessary changes, such as the full inclusion of LGOs. We need all actors to work together in an efficient way if we want to reach the global goals we need in order to address current unsustainable trends and environmental threats.

IEG Reform and potential models for public participation


The opinions expressed in these articles are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of UNEP

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Konrad Otto-Zimmermann is the Secretary General of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, with more than 1,200 members in 70 countries the largest international network of metropolises, cities, towns and regions dedicated to sustainable development.


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