Bonn hosted the United Nations’ climate change conference in 2017. Photo by: Wolkenkratzer / CC BY-SA

BERLIN — Bonn's emergence as a global hub for climate change and sustainability efforts began with a snub.

It came in June 1991, when the reunification of former East and West Germany was well underway. That month, the German Bundestag — the country's parliament — affirmed that the seat of government would return to Berlin, hosting the central components of the German legislature and executive.

That left Bonn, which had served as the capital of West Germany since 1949, out in the cold.

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After the vote, policymakers "worried Bonn would lose all of its importance," said Harald Ganns, who is now a senior adviser to the United Nations, but has also served as an ambassador and spokesperson for the German foreign ministry. "They were worried organizations would leave that had settled only in Bonn because it was the capital."

Three years later, policymakers adopted the Berlin/Bonn Act, which detailed the governmental transition to Berlin. But it also made commitments to help position Bonn, which sits along the Rhine River almost exactly in the middle of the country's west, as an "international hub, a city for international organizations," he said.

By leaving a handful of ministries based in Bonn, including those overseeing the environment and economic cooperation and development, legislators helped guide just what kind of international organizations the city might attract.

Twenty-five years later, Bonn is now a center for the United Nations’ climate and sustainability activities, pulling in many other organizations working around these issues.

Since it hosted the U.N.’s flagship climate change conference — COP23 — in 2017, its profile as a center for sustainability has grown. Federal government and city authorities have worked hard to support that. So far this year, it has already played host to the Global Festival of Action for Sustainable Development and the Bonn Climate Change Conference.

While the German government's 1991 vote set the stage for Bonn's transformation, the U.N.'s 1995 decision to make it the headquarters for its climate change secretariat cemented its future.

Ganns said the decision took even Bonn's backers by surprise since the city was competing against larger municipalities, including Geneva, Switzerland, which already had a significant U.N. presence.

"It was a major breakthrough for the further development of the city," said Stefan Wagner, who heads the office for international affairs and global sustainability for the city of Bonn. "The dimensions of climate policy grew considerably in the last 20 years and so did the U.N. secretariat here in Bonn."

That initial focus on climate then developed into a broader focus on sustainable development: Bonn is now the center of most of the U.N.'s sustainability efforts, which have grown rapidly, particularly following the 2015 launch of the Sustainable Development Goals.

All of the activities on the U.N.’s Bonn campus are linked to achieving the 2030 Agenda. It hosts 20 U.N. organizations — including the body that oversees negotiations around the Paris Agreement — employing around 1,000 people.

The German government has taken steps to facilitate this growth, giving the campus two former parliamentary buildings and, in 2016, announcing a €17 million ($19.1 million) investment to expand it. Construction of a third office building is underway.

Around the U.N. campus, an industry of think tanks and NGOs has also sprung up. The city counts 150 organizations active in development cooperation, peacekeeping, and sustainability.

At the end of June, an alliance of six research institutions launched the new Innovation Campus Bonn. ICB will attempt to pull together researchers to address three overarching sustainability issues: bioeconomy; digitalization and artificial intelligence; and mobility and migration.

Its organizers have been explicit that they hope to enhance Bonn's place as a strategic center for sustainability research, alongside New York, Geneva, Paris, and Rome.

The city is also in the early stages of conceiving a campus for NGOs that want to be located close to the U.N. offices, although Wagner said financing for the project is not yet there.

In the meantime, the city has learned to embrace its reputation. In February, it adopted its first municipal sustainability strategy to build sustainability into its own operations, based on the 2030 Agenda.

The U.N.’s Bonn campus is “the driving force for sustainable development worldwide, but it has also had a strong influence on our city's profile,” Wagner explained.

About the author

  • Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Correspondent based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.