From „What?” to “How?”: Encouraging Dialogue on Municipal Climate Action

In dealing with climate change we are facing the challenge of a transformation to sustainability. What needs to be done? To combat climate change, we need to make significant greenhouse gas savings. But is this the only goal we should set ourselves? No, the transformation goes much deeper: It confronts us with the question of how we want to live - now and in the future.

The project Climate Dialogue (2013-15) of the National Climate Initiative supported a complete change in municipal climate action and inspires to move towards a culture of cooperation. Ambitious climate targets can be achieved on the basis of: "process optimisation, communication and mobilisation in (municipal) climate action" – this was a central message of the Climate Dialogue project, and it is through these three approaches that the project aimed to realise concrete savings in greenhouse gas emissions.

One aspect of the project dealt with exchanges and the learning process between municipalities. Information on numerous and diverse examples of good practice were provided through a range of brochures, data bases and competitions.

Dialogue opens up potential for local climate action and cooperation

However, providing information is not enough. The benefits of ‘good practices’ are not always self-evident, and there are little instructions on how to transfer and apply such examples. Even the "best" practice is derived from and can only be carried out in a specific context. Therefore, encouraging a direct exchange between municipalities is key. Dialogue not only allows the necessary information to be accessed relatively easily, but also offers new insights and opens up potential for action and cooperation.

An example is the “Fail Forward” method. It is used to support dialogue between municipalities and has proven very successful. This method is as innovative as it is simple: Failures can only be addressed and thus prevented when honestly evaluated. If failures are not included in discussions, they will inhibit progress later on. As municipal climate action is a complex field and often means venturing into new territory, it is particularly important to establish a culture where failure is acceptable. This Fail Forward method is, to an extent, about making progress through failures.

Collectively, we must face the inconvenient truth

Positively handling failed projects means wanting to proactively learn from failure. This poses a major challenge for administrations working under tight legal regulations. Learning from one another can be an important step in this context. For instance, to break the ice in a partnership between municipalities, one can take the bold step of reporting what did not work for them. From there on, it is about moving forward together, analysing the situation and coming up with solutions.

In North America, where there is a generally more relaxed attitude towards failure, Canadian Ashley Good established the Fail Forward method. The method emphasises the importance of trust. Establishing a common set of rules can be useful for creating a confidential, protected environment (such as the Chatham House Rules, which state that participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s) may be revealed). However, trust thrives not only when protected, but especially when people are courageous to deal with the hard facts - and to tackle the challenges associated with these together.

"We must establish a culture where it is acceptable to have failures"

In June 2015 during the ICLEI Resilient Cities Conference, the Climate Dialogue project team used the Fail Forward method at a workshop prepared in coordination with Ashley Good. During the workshop, Lykke Leonardsen, Head of the Climate Unit of the City of Copenhagen, reported on notable failures that - even this pioneer city - had to deal with. Leonardsen's unit aims to transform Copenhagen into the first completely climate-friendly city.

"[Therefore] we must establish an organisational culture where it is acceptable to have failures - if you are trying to do what hasn't been done before, you are bound to have failures."

The transformation towards a climate-friendly world is a complex process and requires willingness on our part to explore new avenues, share our experiences and learn together. As Leonardsen emphasised, we have to risk taking the wrong path. We need a culture that values taking on responsibility but also accepts failures. Applying the necessary reflection and adaptation measures to project structures from the very beginning must become a matter of course.

Established measures can be taken as a basis for this. Such measures include: setting mile-stones, feedback rounds, honest evaluations and the decision to draw a line under an approach before things get worse. Alongside these tried and tested instruments, Leonardsen also made some new suggestions such as failure parties and failure diaries for the collective memory of the organisation.

Naturally, it is easier for a successful city like Copenhagen to speak about some of its "failures" - but this approach can nevertheless be applied in the context of partnerships between cities, municipalities and districts.

A unique platform for the implementation of climate action at local level

The International Conference on Climate Action (ICCA2015) was a particularly good opportunity for exchanging information and networking. On 1 and 2 October 2015, municipalities and key stakeholders came together in Hanover, Germany, for intensive discussions on the framework conditions needed for successful climate action. The ICCA2015 thus provided an important platform for the implementation of climate action at local level ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. Among other topics, success factors in municipal climate action were presented and shared. In addition, all workshops posed the following questions: What did not work? How can we learn from this - and find more suitable ways into the unknown? These are small but important steps in the transformation to sustainability. At the ICCA2015 they lead to the Hanover Declaration, which was later presented at the COP21 in Paris and still strengthens the role of local action now.  

Blogpost by Marcus Andreas, 08.12.2015.

The original version of this article appeared on the Huffington Post Blog and was adopted with minor changes.