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The Mayor of Bonn, Germany, Katja Dörner, Source: City of Bonn

Katja Dörner: The Climate Emergency needs all hands on deck and no one left behind

Katja Dörner: The Climate Emergency needs all hands on deck and no one left behind

An interview with Katja Dörner, the mayor of Bonn, Germany

Mayor Katja Dörner was elected in 2020. She has been an active member of the Greens since 1992. From 2001 she was a personal advisor to the chairwoman of the Green parliamentary group in North Rhine-Westphalia, Sylvia Löhrmann, and from 2003 to 2009 a scientific advisor to the parliamentary group for the areas of school and further education, children, youth and family.

Katja Dörner was a board member of the Solidarity Modern Institute from June 2010 to July 2014. On 13 December 2013, she was elected to the board of the German Children's Fund.

During Daring Cities 2021, one of the biggest forums on tackling climate change, she gave a speech on Bonn’s 25-year history as a seat of UN institutions.

Mayor Dörner, could you share some of the key points from your speech at Daring Cities 2021?

Knowing more, acting better, leading together – these were the guiding principles of the Daring Cities 2021. It is local action that will determine whether we fail or win the race against climate change!

Along with all the concerns about catastrophic scenarios and the unavoidable losses waiting for us on that pathway comes courage. Seeing the commitment and motivation of so many individuals, communities and fellow leaders, I am convinced that transformation is possible. Daring Cities 2021 has certainly added impetus to the movement!

However, changes as deep as the necessary climate transformation will only work when owned by the people. Participation is key!

Going from the current state of Climate Emergency to Climate Neutrality for Bonn in 2035 will require collaboration with people and communities. The ‘Bonn4Future’ process is bringing together our citizens, administration and stakeholders to shape Bonn’s climate future. A transition that enables us to respond to our needs without trespassing upon our planet’s boundaries.

We need to completely change course in many areas: mobility transition, renewable energy use (in Bonn we have a huge potential for photovoltaics) and a transformation of the construction sector. We have to be creative in changing our legal frameworks, providing incentives and thinking out of the box.

Bonn has been Germany’s UN City for the last 25 years. How has the presence of so many supranational and humanitarian institutions affected the development of local policy and priorities?  

In Bonn, we have 25 UN organisations. And I could link the activities of every single one of them to our local policies and action. Sometimes coincidentally, many times intentionally. For example, the presence of the United Nations Volunteers has inspired us to create a Citizenship Award and establish a local Volunteering Agency.

The Climate Secretariat, as the biggest UN entity, has been a magnet to other institutions, like IRENA or CAN, the rooftop organisation of civil society organisations in the field of climate. In the late 1990s/2000s, Bonn was already a model city for renewables through a by-law on feeding solar energy into the grid and support schemes for solar energy. This was followed by a solar cadastre and an energy agency providing services for house owners.

Renewables make up 70% of the energy mix of our local, publically owned provider. With only 2% of the possible roof capacity used, more solar energy in Bonn is our goal, and we are hoping for our new photovoltaics initiative to unleash this potential. Land in balance has become another goal for us as well as disaster risk reduction.

The topics of ‘our’ UN Bonn can all be grouped under the umbrella of sustainability. And the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are a guiding principle for our city – from our municipal sustainability strategy to education for sustainable development. In a UN host city, global and local always overlap.

Considering your position on climate change and the devastating effects we are beginning to experience, it is no surprise that you took a very active role during this year’s floods in Germany. How has this event shaped your commitment and policy priorities going forward?  

A flood disaster like this summer is a sad and terrible warning of what will be if we are too slow in taking action for the climate. Bonn has been assisting our neighbours, who were severely affected by this catastrophe in July. This was a disaster on an unprecedented scale in our latitudes.

With respect to climate adaptation, Bonn has been preparing for years - with an adaptation strategy, with studies on risks and vulnerability, with early warning, flood protection and capacity building, with learning and networking. For example, we have initiated the Bonn Network for International Civil Protection and Disaster Risk Reduction, bringing together the expertise of universities, including the United Nations University, capacity builders and implementers like our own fire department. And, of course, we are networking within the ICLEI resilience community

So, it comes down to networking and streamlining our efforts to successfully race against time. The only way to meet this challenge is to be faster than climate change – this summer only underlined a message we know too well!

Daring Cities is an initiative aimed at concentrating local efforts from across the world in a joint push against the climate emergency. Even so, the problems associated with climate change seem to be incredibly persistent. What can a local leader do to help the fight?

We can mobilize our citizens to get on board. Everyone can make a difference and contribute to the transformation!

However, as leaders who want to spearhead the transformation, we need to adopt a very specific attitude: We must be fast in our decisions and action. We have to push through, even if it is hard on us. We are showing discipline, passion, endurance and strength on the ground – and we are collaborating with our people, with our peers and in terms of multilevel action. The Climate Emergency needs all hands on deck! And it needs no one left behind! It also needs innovation and thinking based on the actual needs!

And if you ask me for one of the first things a local leader can do, if not yet done, it is to join the ICLEI network of over 2,500 peers around the world. Together, we can multiply our learning, our capacities and innovation. And together, we are making sure that our voices are heard in the global debate, where we advocate for true multilevel action and enabling framework conditions!

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