ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability
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ICLEI and sustainability
Frequently asked questions about what sustainability is, what it means for local governments and how ICLEI is working toward sustainability

What is sustainability?
Sustainability is often defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” So from this definition, we can say that certain activities are sustainable, like replanting trees or investing in education, while others are unsustainable, like massive deficit spending or dumping harmful pollutants into waterways.

Sustainability balances the aimes of three interrelated pillars: environmental, economic, and social. Sustainability promotes the idea of viewing issues holistically, rather than just through narrower environmental or economic lenses.

A “sustainable community,” therefore, is an urban, suburban, or rural community that has more housing and transportation choices; is closer to jobs, shops or schools; is more energy independent; and helps protect clean air and water (definition courtesy of Smart Growth America).

Is sustainability a trend?
Sustainability has evolved over several decades to become a mainstream concept. It has grown to become more than a political point of view, and is today a benchmark for many local governments to deliver good services to their citizens and private sector companies to run their business. Many companies, such as Marks & Spencer, Walmart, DuPontor or Siemens among others, now recognize the benefits of sustainable practices that minimize environmental impacts, use resources more efficiently, and save them money to increase profits. Individuals, small businesses, universities, local governments, national governments, and the United Nations have all adopted or promoted sustainability in different ways.

Why are local governments interested in sustainability?
A sustainable community is a livable, resilient community. It is one where people want to live and businesses want to establish roots. In fact, a growing number of local government leaders—from New York to Cape Town, from Rio de Janeiro, to Copenhagen or Delhi, from Tokyo to Melbourne,—see sustainability as an opportunity they cannot afford to ignore:
  • Preparing for local climate change impacts like floods and heat waves is critical to protecting the health and safety of community members.
  • Saving resources is necessary to save money in an era of tight municipal budgets.
  • Sustainability is an economic development strategy: a more livable community attracts more businesses and jobs; local clean energy and energy efficiency projects also create local jobs as they create a healthier environment.
  • Developing local energy sources offsets high energy costs and promotes local and national energy independence.
  • Ensuring local biodiversity or save water ensure a safe and healthy living enviroment for people.
  • Offering a diverse set of transport options decreases emmissions, and makes for a cleaner, less noisy and crowded enverinment for people to move around in.

It is the responsibility of a local government to address issues that may affect local health and safety, cost of living, and quality of life in the near future oas well as the long term.

How do local governments approach sustainability?
In recent years, more local governments have embraced the principles of sustainability and incorporated them into their traditional planning processes, or even developed community sustainability plans. Through sustainability planning, local governments recognize their power to address global challenges (climate change, energy demand,increasing urbanization) and in the process, make their communities better places to live.

Local governments can make their communities more sustainable in a variety of ways, especially because they provide many of the essential services that community members need, such as water, electricity, and waste removal. Local governments can take steps to improve efficiency, save money, and conserve resources. They are also responsible for the long-term planning for the community—from land use to building codes, infrastructure investment, public transport options, municipal service delivery and management of infrastructure, schools, parks and recreation areas.

A key principle of sustainability planning is involving community members, busineses, and other stakeholders in the process, so that each community can define sustainability for itself and set sustainability goals that are meaningful and appropriate to local circumstances.

What are examples of local sustainability goals?
There are many, many examples of cities and local governments, large and small, that have set their own goals to achieve a more sustainable future for their cities and communities. Two examples below provide a glimpse of the opportunities:

  • Mexico City’s ‘Green Plan’ (Plan Verde) sets the goal to reduce the city’s emissions by 7 mio metric tons between 2008 and 2012, to introduce 1,000 bicycle pick-up points across the city to increase bicycle mobility and to plant 1.4 million trees to increase green space and air quality across the city.

  • The City of Melbourne’s Zero Net Emissions by 2020’ strategy sets the target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2020.  The city’s ‘1200 buildings’ project aims to improve energy performance by 38 per cent, the potential for greenhouse gas mitigation is 383,000 tonnes of CO2–e (carbon dioxide equivalents), by retorfitting 1,200 commercial buildings.

How does ICLEI support local sustainability?
ICLEI provides tools, resources, and services to help local governments create sustainablity plans and measure the effectiveness of their sustainability and climate initiatives.

Through its regional office ICLEI aims to provide its members with services that are best meeting regional and local needs, so our programs and projects vary across different regions. Below are some examples of our projects and initiatives.

  • ICLEI’s Five Milestones for Sustainability, the core element of the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign (CCP), is a simple planning process that local governments can follow to assess their sustainability, set goals, develop a plan, implement the plan, and reassess and report progress.

  • Local Action for Biodiversity (LAB), began as a three-year pilot project and was the first major initiative in a broader ICLEI Biodiversity Program. LAB, which is now a full program, guides local governments in sustainable urban biodiversity conservation, enhancement, utilization and management. 

  • In 2012, ICLEI will release the STAR Community Index, a pioneering, strategic planning and performance management system that will offer local governments an approach for improving community sustainability.

  • The ICLEI Global Water Programme assists local governments to quantify and qualify water resource use, develop local water action plans, set targets, act on their plans, and track and report goal achievement. 

  • The carbonn Cities Climate Registry (cCCR) is a tool designed by local governments for local governments as a means of enabling measurable, reportable and verifiable local climate action. The cCCR enables local governments to regularly and publicly report on their greenhouse gas reduction commitments, GHG emissions inventories and climate mitigation/adaptation actions to demonstrate the effectiveness of local action to solve global challenges.