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Leaders send a message to the United Nations: "Think Globally, Act Locally"

Jacob Scherr

Posted June 24, 2013

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Two recently-issued detailed reports from top political, academic, business, and civil society leaders to the UN called for transformational changes if we are to meet growing human needs and aspirations while protecting the natural systems that support us.  The reports included new information and insights about our world that has changed so much since the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000.  Yet their bottom-line message was one first heard more than four decades ago at the dawn of the modern environmental movement:  "Think Globally, Act Locally".

In regard to global thinking, I wrote in an earlier blog about these reports that the Leadership Council of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network had proposed that one of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now being discussed at the UN explicitly recognize “planetary boundaries.” The High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the post-2015 Development Agenda called for the forging of “a new global partnership” for sustainable development based upon a common understanding of our shared humanity, underpinning mutual respect and mutual benefit in a shrinking world.   The new global partnership will require a new spirit from national leaders, but also – no less important – it will require many others to adopt new mind-sets.  The Leadership Council similarly noted that we need an operational framework that can mobilize all key actors (national and local governments, civil society, business, science, and academia) in every country to take action to make a rapid transformation to a green economy. 

In regard to local action, both reports recognized the particular importance of cities in the development of the SDGs that are to replace the MDGs which expire in 2015.  Today more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas; and cities are seen as the drivers of economic development and innovation. Cities are where public demands on government for action and accountability are most immediate and effective.  The High-Level Panel said: cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost.  Proposing that one of the SDGs call for inclusive, productive, and resilient cities, the Leadership Council agreed:  The success of the SDGs will be determined heavily in the world’s cities, resting on improvements in the quality of urban governance, sound investments, cities’ ability to innovate, and effective urban-rural linkages.  

The High-Level Panel also gave a strong endorsement to the concept of what are sometimes called “multi-stakeholder partnerships.” 

We live in an age when global problems can best be solved by thousands, even millions of people working together.  These partnerships can guide the way to meeting targets and ensuring the programmes are effective on the ground.

I agree totally, but “A partnership with millions of people? “

We prefer using an acronym that better reflects the broad range of arrangements we see in today’s world to translate global goals into local actions: PINCs – Partnerships, Initiatives, Networks, Clubs, and Coalitions.   Since the 1970s, NRDC has been a strong advocate for the implementation of treaties and globally-negotiated plans of action.  In the 1990s, we started to call attention to a huge “implementation gap” between with ever growing number of promises at the international level and what was happening on the ground.  So we begin pushing for new structures that could bridge this gap.

Here is just one example of a successful PINC:  In the 1990s, NRDC was a leader in an informal network of national and international agencies, companies, and citizen groups that stimulated the phase-out of leaded gasoline in more than 50 countries and about an 80% reduction in its overall use.  At the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit, a formal UN Partnership on Clean Fuels and Vehicles was launched; and in October 2011 we joined UNEP in celebrating the worldwide elimination of lead in gasoline.  

Another very recent example is the new “club” created when the President Obama signed an agreement with Chinese President Xi to provide leadership on phasing down HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas, under an existing international agreement.  My colleagues David Doniger and Jake Schmidt both blogged, here and here , about this “big deal” and “breakthrough”. 

A year ago, hundreds of PINCs valued at more than $500 billion were announced at the Rio+20 Earth Summit. Some were potential game-changers, such as the coalition of major retailers and manufacturers promising to remove deforestation from their supply chains by 2020 or of the major multilateral development banks to invest $175 billion in sustainable transportation. See the Cloud of Commitments

Yet these PINCs were mostly overlooked by governments, civil society groups, and media focused instead on the not unexpectedly uninspired outcome document finally adopted there by some 190 national governments.   At best, the PINCs – labeled “voluntary commitments” at Rio+20 - were viewed as a sideshow to the governmental negotiations.   Thus, it was encouraging to see a much different perspective from the High-Level Panel report:  global partnerships should be a central part of a new development agenda.

 To make transformative changes, the world not only needs new vision and commitments, it needs accountability.  High level Panel argues that this will require a new data revolution.  As stated by the Leadership Council, there must be significant improvements in local, national, and global data collection and processing, using new tools (GIS, remote sensing, social networking, etc.) as well as existing ones.  We should be doing much more to gather and make available not only data about the progress being made on various sustainability targets and indicators, but also on the fulfillment of the specific commitments to take action.  As the High-Level Panel warned, holding people accountable for progress and keeping the agenda high on the political radar of world leaders cannot be taken for granted.

 Nor can we take for granted that the United Nations will now adopt the new/old paradigm of global thinking tied to local action.  Over the coming months, NRDC will be stepping up its efforts with officials, experts, advocates, activists, and students to stimulate an awareness, analysis, and acceptance of the PINCs as a key “means of implementation” not only for the SDGs, but also the next climate treaty due in 2015 as well.


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