31 January 2023

Disruption & Resilience: why stronger local and regional governments are needed

Europe is reeling and seems in constant crisis. The sequence of disruptive global shocks seems to be constantly accelerating, while longer-term emergencies – in particular the climate and biodiversity crises – are continuing without being adequately addressed. Strengthening local and regional governments and rebuilding a sense of community are essential to creating resilient societies for the future.

The challenge to Europe as we know it

For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic had a deeper impact on their lives than even the financial and migration crises before. And, when we saw glimmers of hope that the pandemic may be under control and restrictions could come to an end, we were hit by the shock of a war in the middle of Europe. All this happened while democratic political systems were being put into question with populist extremism gaining ground across the continent.

The ongoing Russian war in Ukraine has destroyed many illusions regarding the future of Europe and the resilience of our societies. It is great to see that Europe is standing strong at Ukraine’s side, and that there is a high level of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. However, we have also seen some limits to this solidarity.

While the vast majority of people were in support of strong sanctions against Russia, they were much less prepared to accept the consequences of these sanctions, particularly high prices for energy and fuel, as well as general inflation. Governments have spent a large part of their budgets on energy subsidies, and are reverting back to old forms of energy sources such as gas, oil and even coal. This is not where we want to be.

Failing to respond in the face of crisis

Subsidies to compensate for rising energy prices and inflation, and investments into new fossil fuel infrastructure – all while the expansion of renewable energy infrastructure is still lagging behind – has certainly raised doubts among many regarding public spending to achieve climate neutrality.

We must learn from Europe’s response to recent shocks, and take lessons into account as we work to achieve the rapid and massive transformation needed to reach our climate, biodiversity, and sustainability goals.

Genuine commitment to achieve these goals is also a societal matter. While in most countries we see wide acceptance of climate change as a key challenge for the future, we see much less acceptance of far-reaching restrictive regulations that impact daily life. This may explain why politicians prefer to emphasise technological solutions, such as switching to renewable sources for electricity, rather than reducing electricity consumption. This response implies that we can continue with our highly consumptive lifestyle and only adapt the means of production. Efficiency and sufficiency are usually neglected, or play far too small of a role, since both would require massive behavioural changes.

Considering the limited time window that we have left to align our policies and measures with the goals of the Paris Agreement, neglecting efficiency and sufficiency is a luxury we cannot afford.

Moreover, the way we consume information through readily accessible media channels that do not provide adequate fora for discussion increases potential for outrage, mobilisation and sometimes aggression, which feed into polarised opinions and political extremism. These undermine trust in the rhetoric of politicians, political institutions and representative democracy as a whole.

Potential for change is found at the local level

Hope is on local and regional governments and their approaches to climate neutrality, adaptation and resilience, which have massive potential to face Europe’s challenges.

Rebuilding trust is key to strengthening Europe, and to being successful in achieving ambitious goals and commitments. Citizens place a greater level of trust in local governments as democratic institutions compared to the upper, further removed levels of governance. They offer opportunities for public participation, involvement and co-creation, which can help foster greater acceptance of even inconvenient solutions and ensure that structural inequalities are addressed.

Local and regional governments better understand geographical settings and challenges, so are better positioned to identify and leverage the potential of decentralised solutions. They can help upper levels of governments to achieve their goals by delivering tailored solutions on the ground. A decentralised approach also makes it easier to activate a wide variety of stakeholders – particularly in the private sector – to participate in the implementation of climate protection measures, and provide more opportunities for social economy approaches, civic investment, and local value capturing.

Local Green Deals and Climate City Contracts provide tools to help local and regional governments to bring stakeholders together locally, and to operationalise an integrated approach. This is why ICLEI supports cities in leveraging these in local level implementation and policy development.

Facing ongoing challenges and crises demands that European, local and regional governments work more closely together. There exist a wide variety of commitment and collaboration schemes that ICLEI supports, which can provide a solid basis to align local and regional efforts toward common goals, such as the Covenant of Mayors, the Mission for Climate Neutral Cities, and the Green City Accord. These are all promising steps, which are also poised to support alignment across governance levels.

How to support this transformational change

As a global network of towns and cities, ICLEI is proud to be a key player in the above-stated European and international commitment and collaboration schemes. However, despite their promise, these alone will not be enough to enable a transformative change in the political architecture needed to build a more resilient Europe.

  • We need a power-shift to the local and regional levels. In many cases, this means less detailed and infringing regulations from higher governing levels, and more flexibility to design local solutions that work to reach agreed-upon goals guided by indicative regulations.
  • We need inclusive governance systems that are able to respond and adapt to needs arising from locally developed strategies and solutions with the involvement of local stakeholders. This demands that higher level governments are ready to accept the power of local governments and to share power in different ways.
  • We need frameworks that encourage integrated urban and regional sustainable development, and which consider a broad range of relevant topics at once to foster synergies and support efficiency.
  • We need more fiscal transfers and financing that is responsive and not prescriptive. Financing should respond to local strategies and plans, and should not be bound to a single project or topic. And, to effectively absorb the finance and investment volume that is needed to manage the massive transformation challenge, cities and regions need to develop purpose-based, multi-project financing facilities.

Cities must be at the table for national and international decision-making, as they are closest to the communities impacted by, and taking action to face, climate emergency. We look forward to continuing to work with our members in 2023 to deliver on our common climate and sustainability goals better, faster and jointly with our stakeholders.