22 January 2018

ICLEI Regional Director Wolfgang Teubner reflects on the challenges and successes of 2017

Dear Members, Partners, Colleagues and Friends,

I hope you all had a great start into 2018, and wish you health, happiness, and success for the year to come.

The turn of the year is a time when we tend to look back at the year that has passed and forward to the year ahead of us, often with hope and expectation, as well as good intentions. When looking back at last year’s message I realised that overall not much has changed in our world, at least not in a positive way. I think it is fair to state that most of the challenges have remained the same, or even grown in size. On the other hand, we have witnessed many great initiatives and achievements by our cities and urban regions, which contribute to keeping these challenges under control, and make our urban areas better places to live.

Following the positive developments of the UN Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris Agreement in 2015, and the shocks from Brexit and the US election in 2016, the past year seemed to be a year of re-orientation and adjusting to the new circumstances in global and European politics, exploring how to address the challenges on the global level without losing the momentum that had been created in 2015. The US president’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was certainly not helpful in this respect, even though no further country was prepared to follow that line.

Overall the global situation has not really become more stable and the feeling of insecurity remains, despite a largely improved economic situation for much of Europe. The negative perception of globalisation, or rather the focus on its downsides, is continuing and the trend towards nationalism and populism has not stopped. Even if it is not always strong enough to win elections, it is certainly impacting political agendas and the democratic culture in many countries.

In Europe, the recovery from the financial and economic crisis continued this year. The results of the French elections promised a new mindset towards the European Union and a renewed impetus for its reform. However, the pending German elections and the subsequent difficulties to establish a new government, as well as the underlying conflicts building up around the topic of migration, have not been helpful to keep these dynamics. Particularly regarding the sustainability and climate agenda, no new initiatives were forthcoming from the EU level. Still, the EU Urban Agenda is gaining some traction and the relevant DGs of the European Commission are making efforts to align the policies and programmes addressing cities and sustainable urban development. It is still too early to see and evaluate the results of these efforts.

Whereas alignment will surely be beneficial, establishment of a one-stop shop for cities does not necessarily simplify the application processes for the individual funding mechanisms or facilitate their integration. We will certainly need to put some effort into achieving further simplification and integration of relevant programmes for the next programming period of 2021-2030, which is already under preparation, particularly since the aim is to get these approved before the next European elections in 2019.

The continuing trend of urbanisation and the difficult situation in international politics, which seems to reduce ambition on the side of national governments, puts local governments and their activities even more in the spotlight. This is particularly the case in the field of climate change. With the merger of the EU Covenant of Mayors and the Global Compact of Mayors into the Global Covenant of Mayors a new dimension of city engagement has been established. Despite some initial difficulties and necessary clarifications during the merger process, the potential of the new global initiative became visible both during COP 23 in Bonn, Germany, and the One Planet Summit in Paris. For the first time a Cities and Regions Summit was part of the official COP programme - the voices of local politicians are now more heard than ever before.

Still, we must note that the global recognition of the importance of cities and local governments does not by itself go along with a strengthening of local self-governance, the delegation of power and responsibilities, as well as the provision of sufficient financing to the local level. To further support localisation in a global perspective we will need more and deeper exchange of experience between cities, as well as capacity building, to prepare local administrations to cope with additional responsibilities and challenges.

In Europe, the Covenant of Mayors is still going strong and we are looking forward to the Covenant Ceremony in February 2018, which should provide a clear path towards the goals of the Paris Agreement, based on the EU strategy. Since climate change is a broad agenda that is related to many other topics, like mobility and transport, nature-based solutions and green infrastructure, water, land-use, waste and circular economy, it can be said to be dominating the scene. Still, we should not forget many other ongoing initiatives like the EU Green Capital and Green Leaf, the EU Urban Agenda, the EU Urban Water Agenda, and also more independent activities like the European Sustainable Cities platform and the related Basque Declaration and Transformative Action Award. All of these processes and activities ask for local commitment, aspiration and change. There is a strong call for the streamlining of legislative, regulatory and financial frameworks on a global, European and national level to support the transformation to sustainability in our cities and societies.

Often it seems that this “transformation” is narrowly discussed as relating to technological innovation and improvements of infrastructure, rather than necessary changes in governance, economic and social systems, as well as cultural aspects. This broader and deeper understanding of transformation can be a major challenge in times when many societies are struggling with a real or perceived social and cultural divide, dissatisfaction, and uneasiness in considerable parts of the population, but it can also be a chance to rebuild societal cohesion and an activated citizenship from the bottom-up. A lot remains to be done, together.

In order to achieve progress and to accelerate transformation towards sustainability, we are consistently striving to create cutting edge knowledge and tools, and to lead inspiring debates in cooperation with our members and partners. But most importantly, we build on the inspiration and encouragement we get from the many good initiatives and ideas that are created and implemented by you, the cities and communities around Europe. We are grateful and would like to thank you for that. Therefore it is great to see that many of our members are receiving recognition for their efforts, be it as European Green Capital or through other awards and schemes on a national level.

We are looking forward to a busy, interesting and challenging year with new projects, many events and a lot of new cooperation and ideas. From the European Covenant of Mayors Ceremony, Resilient Cities Congress, and EU Green Week, to EcoProcura and Local Renewables, we will have many opportunities to meet, discuss and learn from each other. In particular I would like to invite you to the ICLEI World Congress in Montreal, Canada (18-22 June 2018) to experience thought leading debates and exchange amongst our members, partners and friends.

I hope to see you there or at another occasion in the near future