Local governments must be empowered to fight climate change, experts say

A panel at the 10th session of the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo by: Uganda’s Ministry of Local Government via Twitter

BARCELONA — Local governments will play a critical role in creating communities that are adaptive and resilient to climate change, but in order to do so, they need to be empowered and receive greater financial support. This was one of the calls to action from the 10th session of the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, earlier this week.

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Local governments are critical for climate adaptation and building resilience, said David Jackson, director of local development finance with the United Nations Capital Development Fund, during a panel discussion at the forum. Land-usage planning, water management, rural irrigation, drainage, agricultural extension, and disaster risk reduction are all issues that generally fall within the mandates and responsibilities of local governments.

But climate finance has been “captured by ministries of environment,” Jackson told the panel. He added, however, that ministries are regulatory, advisory, or scientific bodies and they lack implementation expertise.

“Local governments will lead the way, and they will show the best practices to the world and to the national and global leaders.”

— Sanjaya Bhatia, chief of office, UNDRR ONEA-GETI

“They are not road engineers. [They] do not deliver irrigation, urban planning, and water management at a local level,” he said, so “they do not have the mandate or responsibility for the myriad of actions that need to be taken to adapt to climate change.”

There is also a tendency to develop big projects that are cumbersome and have heavy overheads. “This is not the most effective way of driving climate change adaptation — it has to be mainstreamed into local government activities,” Jackson said.

While the World Bank and United Nations deliver great projects, he continued, there needs to be a fundamental shift to localize climate finance and to have them run by the local entities responsible for land-usage planning, irrigation, and road maintenance.

Jenipher Namuyangu, Uganda’s minister of state for local government, agreed. She told the panel that there is a lack of support for climate-related work at a local level. Due to the bureaucracy involved, she said, money often arrives too late for communities in need.

“Funding does not go directly to them [Uganda’s local municipalities]. Either it comes through the ministry of water or environment and by the time it goes to the local government … a disaster has happened.”

Sanjaya Bhatia, chief of office for U.N. Disaster Risk Reduction in Incheon, South Korea, told the panel that a roadblock to more local involvement is the siloed way in which different ministries work at a national level. “There is a great opportunity in the cities to innovate and cut silos and have more impactful results,” he said. “Local governments will lead the way, and they will show the best practices to the world and to the national and global leaders.”

“It is high time we empowered local governments to handle climate change issues.”

— Jenipher Namuyangu, Ugandan minister of state for local government

Speaking later to Devex, he added that some donors, such as the World Bank, have specific programs to support local governments, but when it comes to green financing, most of the funding goes through the ministries of environment.

Bhatia suggested that there are also challenges around awareness and capacity. Local governments often need support to convert their plans and ambitions into bankable projects, he told Devex. Many local entities don’t know what finance options are available or how to access them. In particular, smaller municipalities may not have the dedicated staff or capacity for this.

Feedback from local officials during the Making Cities Resilient Campaign suggested that peer-to-peer learning is preferred as a solution over having external experts telling city officials what to do, Bhatia said. The next phase of this initiative, Making Cities Resilient 2030, aims to make it easier for local governments to seek out financing and to approach potential partners that could help them, he said.

Namuyangu, however, suggested that there is still an issue of trust.

“The time is gone when we used to think that local governments do not have the capacity, cannot manage their own programs. … It is high time we empowered local governments to handle climate change issues,” she said.

Namuyangu stressed that there is the expertise at a local level, in areas such as forestry and environment, to manage climate problems and deliver local solutions. “Local governments are ready,” she said, but increased support is needed to create mechanisms, facilitate holistic planning, and build capacity.

Uganda is one of 15 countries already implementing UNCDF’s Local Climate Adaptive Living Facility, which is designed to increase financing for and investment in climate change adaptation at the local level. This mechanism allows national governments to channel extra climate finance to local governments while measuring how it is contributing to climate adaptation and resilience, Jackson said. This is just one of the mechanisms that allows local governments to prove they can deliver climate finance in a measurable way, he added.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.