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Wolfgang Teubner, ICLEI Regional Director for Europe: The big challenge we see ahead is the reform of our social and economic systems in order to work for the sustainability transformation

ICLEI Europe works for the implementation of the major global agreements on sustainability, like the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda or the Convention on Biodiversity on the local level
  • March 18, 2019 14:30, 1143 impressions
  • Author Olya Georgieva
Medium wolfgang teubner s
Source: ICLEI

ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability is the world’s leading network of local and regional governments committed to sustainable development. Tell us more about the work of ICLEI Europe.

ICLEI Europe works for the implementation of the major global agreements on sustainability, like the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda or the Convention on Biodiversity on the local level. The core of our work is built on sharing good practice, innovation and pilot projects, as well as guidance and capacity building. At the same time, ICLEI is trying to influence multi-level governance processes in Europe in order to create more favorable legal and financial framework conditions and support for local sustainability action.

What collaborations are needed to make sustainability a success? Which are ICLEI’s valuable partners when planning for sustainability?

Striving for sustainability is rather a permanent societal process than a final end state that will be stable. Therefore, we need collaboration both vertically - across all levels of governance, as well as horizontally - involving all relevant stakeholders on the local level. Most importantly, we need active citizens that get actively involved from planning to implementation of actions. Our key partners are cities, universities and other institutions in research and innovation, as well as institutions of EU governance like the European Commission, the Committee of the Regions, the European Economic and Social Council, the European Parliament but also other city networks. And last, but not least, we need the business and finance sectors on board as drivers of innovation and for re-directing resources towards sustainability.

Can you give examples of how ICLEI support their Member Cities to help create a sustainable future?

Of course, sharing of knowledge and good practice is in the core of the network idea. However, we work a lot on innovation and pilot projects with our cities, resulting in tools and guidance to support cities in the planning and implementation of many aspects of urban sustainability, from climate mitigation and adaptation to urban transport and mobility, or sustainable public procurement. On this basis, we offer training and capacity building and also individual consulting. We also give cities a voice in European and international policy processes, organise events and are involved in key policy initiatives for cities and local governments like the Covenant of Mayors or the European Sustainable Cities Platform. We also offer a topical network on sustainable and innovation procurement, Procura+, as well as provide incentives and awards like the Procura+ Awards and Transformative Action Award.

Sustainable development is a shared responsibility of the European Union. How do you see the future of the European regions and cities in this sense?

While the major regulations and frameworks for implementation are decided and set on the European and national levels, the key responsibility for implementation resides with the local and regional actors. This is increasingly recognised within the EU and cities and regions are getting in the focus of climate and sustainability policies. However, as yet, we lack a full recognition of cities in the relevant legislative processes or in the most relevant funding and financing streams. However, the EU Urban Agenda is certainly a step in the right direction although it still can be improved, particularly when it comes to the buy in of the national governments. That is why it is important that we undertake concerted efforts to make the voice of cities heard across all levels of governance. That is why we also cooperate closely with other networks in the EU and beyond in these efforts.

How do you think sustainable solutions can be shared between cities? What do you think should be the focus of future debate on sustainability?

Well, the sharing of solutions is not always as easy as it seems particularly across borders, since many solutions are tailored to local circumstances and frameworks. Therefore, I would rather speak of providing inspiration and ideas that will then be discussed, adapted and hopefully implemented in many places. Although it is often claimed that there is not enough good practice information available, it is often the case that people are not aware of many platforms that provide relevant information.

Regarding the focus of the future debate, I currently see the focus on social and economic topics. By now the awareness and sense of urgency for action regarding climate change, biodiversity and global resource depletion is widely spread. However, implementation of fast and radical transformation is slowed down for economic and social reasons. Therefore we need to make sure that we develop a new economy that is able to work within the global limits that are set by climate change (eg. 1.5 °C temperature rise) and limited resources available (land, water, biodiversity) without leading to social disruptions.

What transformations are needed in order to achieve more sustainable Europe by 2030? Who are the key players in such a large transformation?

Clearly, the energy transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energies is absolutely crucial and needs to be further accelerated. Somehow linked, there is the transformation of the mobility sector where we need to see dramatic changes to alternative non-fossil fuels, maybe with a focus on electricity but also hydrogen or bio-based fuels. And last but not least a much better soil, water and nature protection to stop the loss of biodiversity and protect human health. For all these transformations we need a strong alignment and partnership between all levels of government, the businesses which will in parts see dramatic changes, research and innovation to permanently develop new and better solutions and, equally important, the civil society. The latter is especially relevant, since we are not only talking about technological solutions but also about socio-cultural change, meaning lifestyles that need to be adapted to the challenges and upcoming changes ahead of us. One example is the sharing economy, which is an interplay between new technologies and new behaviour and habits.

How easy is for a small municipality in Europe to be engaged in making Nationally Determined Contributions fit for the Paris Agreement and advance sustainable urban development?

Of course, local governments depend a lot on national frameworks regarding their allocated responsibilities, their financial and economic opportunities and regulations they have to respect. Here we experience considerable differences across Europe. For example, in some countries we see particularly smaller municipalities that have managed to go to 100% renewable energy production or even beyond. Particularly in a rather rural setting, the opportunities are good to combine various sources like biomass, wind and solar. The decentralised production creates also economic benefits for these communities. To achieve this, some basic framework conditions like stable grids, open grid access, preferential feed for renewable energy or a fair feed-in tariff are needed. Currently, such conditions are still missing in many countries. Thus, smaller municipalities need to associate themselves and align their interest in order to be more powerful and influential in these political and strategic processes. On European level, the Covenant of Mayors - as a shared effort of the Commission and major European networks - is providing such a structure that is open for all sizes of municipalities. 

Are there any big upcoming projects for the ICLEI network? Tell us more about what is planned for 2019.

Not surprisingly climate change and energy transition are key topics for us and will remain to be so for a long time, since this is a process over longer periods and will include deeper socio-cultural changes in our societies. Another longer-term project is the localisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UN 2030 sustainable development agenda. To achieve this, ICLEI is working on a wider variety of topics from transport and mobility, nature-based solutions to sustainable public procurement and financing. The big challenge we see ahead is the reform of our social and economic systems in order to work for the sustainability transformation.

There are many conferences and workshops ICLEI is organising or co-organising. Highlight some of the most interesting events for this year.

Resilient Cities, Urban Resilience Forum, ICCA (Adaptation), Informed Cities, some project events – as the UrbanWINS final conference –, activities in Green Week – such as a conference on Circular Cities innovating to tackle plastic waste (16 May, Brussels) –  and EU Week of Regions and Cities, 9th European Conference on Sustainable Cities and Towns (Mannheim, 2020). 

How cities network like TheMayorEU and ICLEI can work together to drive growth and to ensure a better future of Europe?

There are many activities that can be done. For instance, we can work together to disseminate and promote different tools developed by cities and other partners as part of projects and initiatives, that can be exploited by other cities and organisations to move towards sustainability. We can work together for public campaigning, as we have done with other five networks of towns, cities and regions to support the Global Climate Strike last March 15th. Co-organising webinars, workshops, conferences and events can be another way of supporting each other. ICLEI, its Members and its team of experts, is always happy to join forces with other organisations that are pushing for a better future of Europe.