Cities and the Sustainable Development Goals

Getting vocal about going local

Kris Hartley

Economics and finance, Environment & energy, Government and governance | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

27 September 2019

City policy initiatives to meet the Sustainable Development Goals are not without challenges, but their advantages form a crucial piece of crafting a circular economy of the future, Kris Hartley writes.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide governments with a coherent, integrated, and actionable policy framework to advance the cause of development within the limits of the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity. In short, they tell us how to prosper fairly and sustainably.

While the SDGs were designed largely with national-level policies in mind, cities are playing an increasing role by incorporating SDG goals into urban plans.

This policy process, often referred to as SDG localisation, raises new opportunities to consider the relationship between local and national governments, and its implications for the long-term survival of humanity.

A new report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs outlines actionable steps cities can take to help advance the SDGs. These include building ‘smart’ capacity: embracing a comprehensive view of knowledge, strategic networking, and engaging a variety of constituencies.

More on this: Building tomorrow's cities

According to Quito mayor Mauricio Rodas, city action on SDGs can have the advantage of being non-ideological. City-level efforts embody practicality because efficient and concrete solutions are needed to protect communities and their immediate livelihoods.

Diffusing political pushback around SDG policy may be possible through better public engagement, participation, and empowerment. One example is to democratise data collection, an idea with a history that largely predates debates about climate change.

By equipping residents and civil society groups with the skills, capacity, and access to collect and understand data – and, as importantly, by institutionalising the use of that data – collective buy-in can raise the legitimacy of SDG-related policies.

Democratising data collection also has the practical advantage of improving the representativeness of the data analysis process.

For example, a smartphone application allows residents of Jakarta not only to stay updated about flood conditions, but also to participate in the gathering, uploading, and sharing of information.

Data collection of this sort becomes a collective community-based effort rather than a top-down process. In addition to its practical benefits, it plays a deeper role in signalling that the lived experiences of residents are valid and understood by government.

More on this: What makes a city more liveable?

While data helps facilitate SDG localisation, cities should also encourage residents to act locally on initiatives that align with SDG-related planning goals. Examples are embracing sustainable consumption behaviours and volunteering for social and environmental organisations.

Finally, urban governments should be realistic about the limits of their policy reach and continue to be creative about developing policy solutions with untapped channels of delivery.

While citizen involvement in localisation is crucial to building participation in and support for a sustainability transition, progress is also dependent on restructuring the production system towards a circular economy model.

Improved technologies have enabled firms to better manage industrial emissions and improve energy efficiency, but there remain opportunities to improve. Systems to cycle waste materials back into industrial processes can help make production more sustainable.

The concept of the circular economy has emerged as one means to achieve this transformation but has suffered limited application.

Helping companies develop and procure technologies enabling circularity is a crucial step towards meeting the SDGs. Mechanisms such as green financing, green bonds, and other types of preferential financing can be used by local governments to strengthen the business case for this transition.

More on this: What do the SDGs really have to offer?

There is evidence that the intersection between the circular economy idea and SDG implementation is gaining momentum. For example, during the third World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki in summer 2019, panellists emphasised the need for a circular economy transition to not only focus on SDG realisation but also to be fairer and more inclusive.

Given the embeddedness of industrial production, the transition to a circular economy will be neither quick nor cheap.

Policymakers must anticipate barriers to adoption and respond creatively and effectively, while cities must embrace the opportunity to serve as testbeds for experimental SDG policy ideas.

Barriers to adoption include cultural practices, underdeveloped markets for reusable materials, and – most relevant for policymakers in SDG localisation – obstructive laws and regulations.

To address these issues, local governments must be strategic and opportunistic about new policies, promote knowledge sharing, and engage collaboratively.

Efforts to accelerate SDG localisation will need to be creative. An example is the concept of the ‘social circular economy’, which offers a fresh vision around which cities can organise SDG policies.

According to a 2018 report, the social circular economy unites the circular economy and social enterprise models to deliver benefits for ‘people, planet and profit.’

Circular economy principles can have a bright future in the coming decades. Adding models of social enterprise introduces a dimension that mobilises not only technology but also people – with the potential advantage of strengthening the legitimacy of SDG policies.

Cities aiming to adopt novel strategies for SDG localisation may find as much value in engaging the public as they do the private sector and global organisations. Sometimes the answers to global problems are right in our own communities.

This article was based on the author’s report Global Goals, Global Cities: Achieving the SDGs through Collective Local Action for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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