1. Sustainability
  2. Climate risk
September 25, 2015

Municipal governments are employing “climate change agents”. But they need the right support

By Anna Bach

It can be difficult to set up institutional structures and large scale support programmes for local actors to engage in climate action – yet dedicated and skilled individuals can make all the difference in local communities.

So who are the “agents of change” in local climate mitigation? And which factors promote or hinder climate action at the local level?

Addressing these questions and factors is a vital part of “Climate Dialogue”, a three-year project commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB). Climate Dialogue seeks to facilitate exchange and networking among countries, subnational entities and individuals who are interested in strengthening local climate action. The project is looking closely at specific instruments and policies, as well as designing, optimising and promoting support schemes for local climate mitigation.

At recent Climate Dialogue workshops, experts from Europe and North America discussed the different approaches taken in British Columbia, Vienna and Germany. The mechanisms used include supporting individuals who act as change agents within local governments, and who serve to drive local climate action forward.

British Columbia focuses its activities on reducing demand at the corporate and municipal level, by employing and subsidising specialized energy managers. Vienna approaches the issue at the highest administrative level through the Magistratsdirektion Klima, an organisation which acts as an interface between different departments and the mayors’ office to ensure streamlined activities across the entire administration.

In Germany, meanwhile, the BMUB provides financial support for municipalities employing local climate protection managers. Part of the Climate Dialogue project has involved developed a specialised training programme for these managers, carried out by the Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung (Institute for Energy & Environmental Research) Heidelberg.

While it is obvious that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for change agents, the issues these individuals face are often very similar – so an international exchange among decision makers and practitioners can provide meaningful and important lessons that help to advance national programs. The intense discussion between practitioners from the countries mentioned above brought to light differences in the details of different strategies; but it also helped to identify three common themes.

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The first concerns the skill set required by local climate and energy managers. While technical knowledge plays a vital role in their position, the ability to communicate and promote strategies, as well as desired outcomes, is an often-neglected competence.

Not only does the general public need to be convinced of measures: it also needs to be convinced by relevant stakeholders and political decision makers. Here, the ability to effectively collaborate with various actors is the key to achieving successful outcomes.

Secondly, while local energy and climate managers often serve to support existing administrative structures, some of these structures actually seem to hinder their effectiveness. Climate mitigation needs to be integrated as a theme, right across political thinking and decision making.

Achieving that depends on a number of factors, including the implementation level, the size and capacities of municipalities, and issues of mandatory or voluntary action. But embedding such thinking into local structures helps change agents to gain support for their work, and to influence decisions across all sectors and departments.

As a third point, funding for change agents is of course crucial. The importance and awareness for climate mitigation should allow for a variety of funding sources, despite generally empty budgets.

Local funding – whether from municipal utilities, municipal budgets or corporations – Is the preferred option, since it makes communication with relevant stakeholders easier and therefore lowers transaction costs. But while private funds bring the risk of prioritising individual investors’ interests, local contexts will define the general availability and hence need for diverse funding sources.

With regards to communication, articulating the short-term profits and benefits often seems to further availability of funds. Generally, people need reliability and planning security to excel in their jobs; this is true for change agents, too. Short-term finance and the need to secure funding again at regular intervals can motivate people to do their best – but it is also a burden, particularly for young professionals, and particularly if they are in comparatively low-paid positions within local government.

The strategies employed vary across different countries and different levels of government.  But dialogue and exchange not only allows for lessons to be learnt; it also creates a space for inspiration and encouragement, through the discovery of common experiences. Knowledge sharing and networking at the local level can create a strong sense of empowerment.

Anna Bach is an analyst at Berlin-based think tank Adelphi, currently working on the Climate-Dialogue programme.

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