Building local resilience: Why the Commonwealth must act locally as well as think globally.November 2022: Discussion on cities and the energy crisis at COP27. [photo by Carl Wright]

[This article was written for the Round Table website. Opinions expressed do not reflect the position of the editorial board.]

In 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government adopted the Commonwealth Declaration on Sustainable Urbanisation which recognises the importance of effective, multi-level governance and partnership to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Cynicism is sometimes voiced about the relevance of international declarations. Likewise, the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs have had their critics, arguing that they represent abstract global aspirations, only delivered top-down. Yet by ‘thinking global and acting local’ these criticisms can be refuted, and this is exactly what organisations like the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF) do by taking international principles and applying them at the community level: not through centralised action by Whitehall or central governments or by intergovernmental bodies but by decentralised action at the grass roots. Indeed, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, has released a study which highlights that of the 169 detailed SDG targets, well over 100 targets are much better suited to implementation at local level.

Local government leading climate action
COP27: Progress at a grassroots level

Local government has for long had responsibility for ensuring local resilience and sustainable development at the community level, including basic service provision like schools and healthcare centres, infrastructure development including road repairs, building affordable housing, ensuring climate adaptation and mitigation, enabling local business and providing sustainable mobility. It also has key responsibility for emergency responses to natural disasters such as storms, fires and floods. Nor can the importance of ensuring resilient local democratic structures be understated, for example by digitalisation of council services to enhance their accessibility and by ensuring full transparency to combat corruption.

In Kigali in November 2023, 500 mayors and senior local government delegates from more than 40 countries adopted the Kigali Declaration on building resilience across the Commonwealth. Yet another international declaration, critics will say, but one signed by down to earth practitioners in touch with their local electorates. The Declaration, agreed at the CLGF conference aims to have CLGF members throughout the Commonwealth deliver resilient societies through serving local people; reinforcing resilience through a focus on local economies; the environment; and democracy: all issues which have high relevance to ordinary citizens.

Addressing environmental and climate challenges and building the necessary local resilience must be is a core task of local government across the world. Climate change provides a key example of why we must act locally. The Kigali Declaration calls for central and local government to work together to raise awareness of the impacts of climate change in communities, build capacity, mobilise stakeholders and ensure coordinated action for climate mitigation and adaption as well as disaster risk reduction. It states that they should draw on nature-based solutions and traditional knowledge-based systems and engage communities in climate action, noting that this is particularly important in small island developing states (SIDS) which are especially vulnerable. This is exactly what local governments, from Canterbury to Kigali, Vancouver to Belize City and Colombo to Wellington, are doing by declaring local climate emergencies and drawing up local climate action plans.

All these good intentions are no good unless backed up by money. The Kigali Declaration expresses concern about the failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions adequately and to mobilise sufficient climate finance to support the Global South to achieve a just transition. Local governments access to finance is crucial in supporting their ability to undertake effective planning, address inequalities, act on climate, reenforce economies and ensure social and political inclusion. CLGF will accordingly establish a Taskforce on mobilising finance for development at the local level to provide a space for dialogue and identifying options and innovations as well as supporting partnerships for delivery. The Taskforce will inform CLGF members on specific action to take in their own localities to secure much needed resources.

“Unexpected examples of good practice”: Thoughts from COP27
Building the Commonwealth cities of the future

It is clearly vital that local government has direct access to green finance to reinforce local resilience and enable communities to adapt to and mitigate climate risks. However, it also needs local capacity to access data, develop feasibility studies and environmental impact assessments to enable access to green finance. It is therefore encouraging that the UN Climate Conference COP28 in Dubai decided that the new UN Loss and Damage Fund, designed to assist such vulnerable countries and administered by the World Bank, will allow local governments access to the Fund. While details remain to be worked out, this bottom-up approach is more effective than channelling funds top down, and involves less red tape, bureaucracy and delays.

Where international bodies can play a role is in setting the overall framework-the global thinking- for local action, just as they have done in respect of the SDGs. Thus the COP 28 in December 2023 for the first time included a high-level Local Climate Action Summit. This Summit was addressed by the UN Secretary-General and COP28 President and attended by senior mayors and local leaders including from Commonwealth countries such as Kiribati. UN Habitat moreover convened a ministerial meeting on climate and urbanisation during COP28, and there were a wide range of other local government-related events on climate adaptation and mitigation. All these involved discussions of concrete initiatives at community level to reach net Zero targets, in other words, acting locally.

These were all events CLGF actively engaged with and highlight the importance of the multi-level governance approach by all spheres of government-central, regional or state and local- set out in the 2022 CHOGM Declaration. It is in line with the strategy of many intergovernmental organisations, with the EU in the lead, given its obligation to support action at the most appropriate governmental level through the subsidiarity principle embedded in its Lisbon Treaty. It is also central to the UN’s focus on localising SDG implementation and advisory group on local and regional government which has participation of CLGF’s Chair, Mayor Wagner from Belize City.

The Commonwealth too, although not a Treaty organisation, has its Commonwealth Charter which explicitly incorporates the Aberdeen Commonwealth Principles on good practice for Local Democracy and Good Governance. The latter commits member governments to encourage local democratic elections and decentralised action. Many Commonwealth governments have already given significant decentralised powers to local government, although there are significant exceptions, most obviously Brunei which has no form of democracy whatever, and even the UK is among the most centralised top-down governments in the world.

COP28 further saw the launch of the Coalition for High Ambition Multilevel Partnerships (CHAMP) under which national governments have formally committed themselves to engage subnational governments, including cities, towns, states and regions, in the planning, financing, implementation and monitoring of climate strategies notably National Determined Contributions, NDCs. This commitment reflects the already-stated role that cities and urban areas have in tackling climate change, as both the main source of global greenhouse gas emissions and a key vehicle to achieve successful adaptation and mitigation. Hopefully, all Commonwealth countries will join the 70 UN member states already signed up to CHAMP.

The 2024 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Samoa has the theme of ‘One resilient Common Future: Transforming our Common Wealth’. This will be valuable opportunity to address in particular the needs of vulnerable and climate-endangered small island states, as well as to integrate the aims of the CLGF Kigali Declaration on local resilience into wider Commonwealth strategies on resilience. To think global but act local.

Dr Carl Wright is the Secretary-General Emeritus of the CLGF and a member of the Round Table editorial board. He attended the 2023 CLGF Kigali Conference and has been delegate at past COPs and has written on climate change. He is author of ‘Global Citizen: Grassroot Activism and High Diplomacy’ (Hansib Publications 2022).