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Sustainability reporting by local governments: A magical tool? Lessons from pioneering cities in Europe and beyond

Title: Sustainability reporting by local governments: A magical tool? Lessons from pioneering cities in Europe and beyond

Presenter: VNG International - Ludger Niemann

Function: Associate Expert          


Local governments play an essential role in promoting sustainable development. They bear responsibility for decisions and investments falling under their control (e.g. land use, transport planning) and have an important role for local governance arrangements and liaising with other stakeholders including citizens. Many local governments take this role seriously as is evidenced by numerous voluntary commitments to ambitious sustainability targets (e.g. concerning a reduction of CO2 emissions). Further, a growing number of city governments (municipalities) voluntarily engage in sustainability reporting. Some pioneering cities have done so for up to 15 years, publishing reports at yearly or multi-year intervals. This practice is still rare in most countries yet relatively widespread in some (e.g. Australia, Germany) and becoming compulsory in one (France). Some cities do not publish stand-alone reports but work on the systematic integration of sustainability indicators and analyses into general (e.g. annual) reports. What are the benefits of these approaches?  According to mayors’ forewords, many reports are published with grand aims including the improvement of evidence-oriented policymaking and the empowerment of citizens and other stakeholders. We have evaluated the utilization and effects of various types of reporting strategies (stand-alone vs integrated reporting at shorter and longer intervals) in a sample of six European front-runners: Amsterdam, Basel, Dublin, Freiburg, Nuremberg and Zurich. This research produced evidence of various positive effects including fruitful process use (e.g. municipal staff improving their capacities through the reporting process), conceptual learning and local agenda-setting. However, reporting appears to be no magic tool – it requires a match between appropriate reporting strategies and particular objectives, i.e. a focus on management or communication but not the simultaneous pursuit of both. Further research is needed on the suitability of key reporting strategies in different socio-political systems and the evolution of local sustainability agendas.