8 December 2022
Moving Towards Sustainable Cities: Linking Climate Action and VLRs
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While there is much discussion about reaching net-zero emissions, meaningful climate action should go hand-in-hand with broader sustainability priorities.

Momentum is building for the VLR movement to expand its role in sustainable transitions and to maximize synergies between the localization of the SDGs and climate action.

By improving policy integration and providing learning opportunities for all local stakeholders, VLRs can better mainstream and accelerate climate action at the local level.

By Fernando Ortiz-Moya, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), Yizhao Yang, University of Oregon, Marco Reggiani, University of Strathclyde, Anne Taufen, University of Washington, Tacoma, and Yatsuka Kataoka, IGES 

After the Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 27), there is a growing sense of urgency to accelerate climate action as the 2030 deadline for achieving Goal 13 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is drawing nearer. However, the lack of a stronger commitment by nation states to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 is a source of concern. At the same time, the success of the 2030 Agenda hinges on whether climate action can serve broader sustainability priorities as framed by the SDGs in a just and democratic manner, co-produced among vested groups in alignment with multi-level governance (specific to different places).

Co-production honors the rights and responsibilities of people who have to live with policy interventions, developing realistic local strategies for meeting global goals of sustainable development. Despite national governments’ lack of ambition, many cities worldwide are reinforcing their climate action plans. Their expanding responsibilities in fighting climate change, localizing the SDGs, or advancing post-COVID-19 recovery call for tools to streamline efforts as, more often than not, there is a lack of coherence and integration between the different plans, policies, and strategies that inspire local governance, and limited connection to regional and national priorities. As a result of this siloed approach to policymaking, local governments are blinded to opportunities to accelerate climate action. This, in turn, can limit options to leverage co-benefits and to minimize trade-offs between different departments’ policies.

Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) have gained prominence in reporting and monitoring regional and local governments’ progress towards attaining the SDGs while helping to “localize” the 2030 Agenda through the implementation of concrete policies and strategies to achieve the SDGs while accounting for local and regional contexts. To date, more than 100 local and regional governments have conducted a VLR, demonstrating their commitment to achieving the SDGs. However, while VLRs usually include actions and achievements towards environmental Goals (notably SDG 13 on climate action in the context of SDG 7 on affordable and clean energy), there is little evidence of comprehensive integration of climate policy and the SDGs.

Can VLRs accelerate climate action at the local level? Policy integration is key

Even though climate action is implicit throughout the 2030 Agenda (and explicit in some SDGs), governments have dissociated SDG localization from climate action. As a result, the majority of the VLRs published to date review environmental concerns generally as stand-alone elements unrelated to other SDGs.

However, VLRs can (and should) help to mainstream climate action across all areas of local governance. This is because, at its core, the systematic nature of the analysis carried out in the VLR process encourages governments to act by creating a scientifically robust monitoring and evaluation framework tailored to the local context. This generates data that can be used to assess ongoing and future strategies at the municipal level.

Our research suggests that if policy integration is embedded in the VLR process, this exercise opens avenues to discern potential for climate-positive actions across all domains of local policymaking. For example, procurement can support climate change mitigation by changing the kind of light bulbs used in streetlamps and other municipal buildings to more energy-efficient ones, such as LED light bulbs (despite the slightly higher upfront cost). Pittsburgh, for example, was able to align the city’s values with its supply chain by bringing sustainable considerations into the procurement process thanks to its VLR.

Learning through VLRs

VLRs can advance climate action and help to localize the 2030 Agenda beyond improving policy integration. This is because the review process produces knowledge and information relevant to the local context and supports the application of skills via intersectoral cooperation. VLRs also open opportunities for co-engagement of different stakeholders (e.g. citizens, professionals, practitioners, organizations, and local leaders) for common-good contributions and help to plan for successive actions for a better future.

Since the review process relies heavily on engaging with stakeholders, VLRs provide ample opportunities to improve sustainability competencies (SCs) and the co-production of locally actionable policies.  SCs are key to empower organizations and individuals to gain the necessary knowledge to address formidable challenges like climate change and skills to be active agents in sustainable transitions, including by upholding their attitudes and values. 

However, to maximize these SCs, the VLR process needs to go beyond reporting progress towards the SDGs to also focus on reaching out to communities. This process benefits from approaches that are participatory and inclusive. Realizing the full educational value of a VLR would also require a conscious use of activities and outputs to expand learning opportunities for all stakeholders and to co-create learning environments that could accelerate sustainable solutions at the local level. For example, Espoo’s VLR includes activities in the city’s public schools that increase climate awareness: as part of their education for sustainable development, pupils learn about the importance of reducing energy consumption and food waste from early ages and how these efforts help to address climate change.

VLR reports, written in accessible language or hosted on online information hubs, offer citizens the opportunity to see the connection between policies and outcomes. For example, Hawai’i’s Aloha+ Challenge portal links the state’s VLR to its green growth strategy in an easy-to-understand way, complementing its VLR report. The website presents a dashboard with progress on the primary indicators of the Aloha+ Goals. In the case of the ‘Clean Energy Transformation’ goal, all the indicators relate to climate action, for instance the share of renewable energy used statewide or the total energy used. Progress is represented using a traffic light system that differentiates between goals on track, being measured, and those that need improvement.

If conducted in a holistic way, VLRs can then be used to improve citizens’ and stakeholders’ understanding of evidence-based and integrated policymaking, develop motivational skills, and engage in critical and reflexive thinking around climate action

Accelerating Climate Action through VLRs

While countries renew their pledges to fight climate change, their actions might not be enough to meet the goals set by the Paris Agreement. Yet, many local governments have committed themselves to more ambitious targets than those of their respective countries and a growing number of cities are upping their commitment to delivering the SDGs by conducting VLRs of their progress.

The recent VLRs conducted by frontrunner cities around the world exemplify how climate action benefits from and can be intertwined with localization of the SDGs. Learning from these cities’ successes and challenges is a unique and timely opportunity to bring forward a more sustainable and equitable future that leaves no one behind. While our research suggests that VLRs can (and should) expedite sustainable transitions through local co-production of climate action policies, in order to accelerate climate action at the local level, more purposeful effort is needed to embed policy integration and learning opportunities for all stakeholders in the design of future VLRs.

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