The UN agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could not be more important than during these challenging times. The COVID-19 crisis is teaching us that it will be important, once the mitigation phase of the impacts will be over, to re-think and re-orient our economic and social systems towards a more sustainable future. Urbanisation is one of the key transformative trends of our time and any successful path to achieving such a future will run through sustainable cities.
SDG11 – “making cities inclusive, safe and sustainable”, is surely a key entry point to sustainable urban development, but systemic interactions with at least 11 other SDGs need to be made, with implications for the whole Agenda 2030. While many countries have started to incorporate the SDGs into their national strategies and plans, the importance of local action has gained significant traction over recent years. In many ways, European cities have been driving this effort by playing a key role in implementation of the agenda.
Since 2018, a number of cities all over the world have started to report their progress on the SDGs to the United Nations, by submitting Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs), a subnational equivalent to Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) to report on actions and policy-systemic solutions to achieve the goals. In Europe, the cities of Barcelona, Helsinki and Bristol have so far taken part in this process.
In this respect EUROCITIES will soon publish a report aimed at capturing the contribution of European cities to the SDGs, through good practices and concrete recommendations for accelerated action. It will be based on a mapping exercise and a survey among EUROCITIES members with the aim of understanding their level of involvement with the SDGs. 57% of members surveyed (55 cities) are active on the agenda. Highly engaged cities (32%) have taken concrete actions and developed plans for mainstreaming the SDGs at the city level. Cities with medium to partial engagement (25%) have so far focused on communication actions, benchmarking and support to external activities. The final cluster of cities (43%) are familiar with the concept of sustainable development and are taking concrete actions but are using other conceptual frameworks such as Agenda21 or the well-being-driven frameworks.
To ensure that the commitment on SDGs is met, there are concrete steps cities (with the help of other levels of government) can take in four directions: governance, spaces for collaboration, finance and innovation.
As an integrated agenda, the achievement of the SDGs requires an important coordination effort across all levels of government. Strengthening SDG leadership, multi-level governance and capacity building across national, regional, and local levels is essential to this endeavour. The integration of the SDGs in the overall city strategy is a key enabler to help policy-makers to develop accountability mechanisms. Starting from a strong vision of sustainable development, several cities have aligned their strategic plans with the SDGs and put in place dedicated strategic coordination mechanisms.
As the closest level of government to people, city authorities can help policy co-creation processes, set-up citizens’ assemblies, foster civic dialogues and organise participatory budgeting and promote collective action, while ensuring citizen inclusion in economic, social and cultural life. This participatory approach is a key driving force to implement SDGs at the local level and ensure that policies meet the needs of the population while increasing the sustainability of their impact.
While cities typically do not exercise influence over fiscal, monetary and trade policy, local authorities can leverage a range of policy instruments to re-orientate investment flows towards sustainable development needs. Examples include raising awareness and incentivising businesses to contribute to mainstreaming SDGs, providing space for coordination platforms and helping to de-risk investment in new innovations. Integrating SDGs into city budgeting can be an important tool for cities to address resource allocation, mobilise investments, and encourage participatory budgeting processes to better address interconnected challenges. An ambitious approach to sustainability budgeting would entail taking SDGs as a starting point to identify gaps and improve budget performance and policy coherence, rather than only mapping existing budgets against the SDG. SDG-friendly budgeting also requires strong political will and ambition on the national level. Countries which integrate the SDGs into their main budget and budget tools, making decisions towards sustainable development criteria, are also more likely to reflect this ambition on municipal level.
Innovation and research are key enablers for transformative change towards sustainability. While cities are centres of innovation and creativity, attracting talents and connecting research hubs, universities and businesses, they are also focal points of interconnected challenges. For example, cities produce 72% of all global greenhouse gas emissions and are places where decarbonisation strategies need to address energy, transport and buildings, foster green jobs while working to ensure that the most vulnerable citizens are not disproportionately affected by the transition. With urban systems getting increasingly complex and multi-dimensional, new knowledge and partnerships are required to tackle new and emerging challenges in innovative ways. In the framework of the Agenda 2030, science, innovation and technology can be central to harnessing co-benefits and minimising trade-offs while addressing the 17 SDGs.
There isn’t a unifying framework used by cities to report on SDG implementation, and local authorities face several challenges in availability, harmonisation, statistical capacity and local disaggregation of data. However, while methods to integrate the local dimension into international reporting are currently under discussion at the international level, cities have already started to report on SDGs. The European Handbook for SDG Voluntary Local Reviews includes a useful overview of the reviews produced so far on the local level and a collection of useful indicators especially relevant for the European level.
The implementation of the SDGs is an opportunity for Europe to accelerate the transition and to pioneer cutting-edge innovation that can inspire the world. Notwithstanding the ambition of cities, more needs to be done to fully develop and scale-up solutions across most cities. Champions cities will continue to inspire the world through decentralised cooperation in Europe and beyond. However, later adopters also need to be enabled to contribute to the global agenda.
In this respect the EUROCITIES report recommends that cities willing to scale up efforts on the SDGs:
- Use the SDGs as a common framework to engage with citizens and to incentivise partners and suppliers towards more sustainable practices;
- Consider doing a VLR as a useful exercise for the city not only to highlight good practices, but also to define trade-offs and gaps in the implementation of SDGs at the local level. This can help to break silos and prioritise focus areas for reinforced collaboration and investments.
- Strengthen multi-stakeholder partnerships and further combine the “innovation community” and the “sustainability community” to accelerate implementation and scale up solutions;
- Support both bottom-up and top- down strategies: civil society actions and awareness support can reinforce political leadership and administrative ownership, and vice versa;
- Use the SDGs to drive the change towards sustainable finance and to push green and social investments;
- Focus on cities’ production and consumption external spillover, and how to improve policy coherence for sustainable development.