Reshaping our future through local and subnational biodiversity action

Over the past two decades, ICLEI, through its Cities Biodiversity Center (CBC), has worked closely with the United Nations Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and a range of partners to elevate the voice of local and subnational governments and ensure that strong action is taken to create vibrant cities and regions, where people and biodiversity can thrive.

Taking urgent action for nature

Nature underpins our livelihoods and very existence. It is integral to the effective functioning and well-being of urban communities. This has never been more evident than during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Access to natural open spaces (such as parks, forests, mountains and beaches) was, and in many instances remains, limited and food systems have suffered extreme stress, sometimes even breaking.

Urgent collective global action is needed to reconnect people with nature, protect biodiversity and restore ecosystems. If we do not make peace with nature now – in this decade – the scientific indications are that there will be irreversible tipping points that, once reached, will cause irreparable damage to the critical ecosystems that sustain life on earth.

The escalating decline in biodiversity and associated multiple ecosystem goods and services has implications for the quality of life of current and future generations, adversely limiting our ability to combat poverty, hunger and climate change. More than 37 400 species are at threat of extinction – 28% of all known species.[1] And extinction rates are rising rapidly with predicted future extinctions 10 times higher than they are now. This will significantly negatively affect future generations’ ability to meet their needs. This threat is compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, with the former estimated to push as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty this year, and the latter 132 million people by 2030.[2]

Everyone must act quickly to stop biodiversity loss. Oliver Hillel, Programme Officer: Secretariat of the CBD, notes that globally people’s health and well-being, livelihoods and economies depend on biodiversity. “Biodiversity is also the cheapest provider of clean water and air, energy and resilience against climate change,” he says. The Dasgupta Review illustrates that the social benefits of expanding Protected Areas are likely to be significant. A partial economic analysis, focused on forests and mangroves, indicated projected overall benefits of US$170-534 billion a year by 2050.[3] Of this, US$490 billion would originate from avoided flooding, climate change impacts, soil loss and coastal storm damage. These benefits are weighed against the direct investment needed to expand Protected Areas on land and sea, estimated at US$103-178 billion a year by 2030”.[4]

Local and subnational governments – particularly cities, as they plan, coordinate, regulate, monitor and enforce patterns of production and consumption – will need to deliver on as many as two-thirds of the biodiversity targets set out in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

Focusing on biodiversity in the city and regional context

Cities are projected to be home to 75% of the world’s population by 2050.[5] Land-use decisions in the urban landscape related to infrastructure (spatial development), related regulations (emissions, pollution, waste disposal) and by-laws determine to a significant degree societies’ impact on the natural landscape. Cities make these decisions by the thousands each day, often with irreversible consequences. Kobie Brand, Global Director of ICLEI’s CBC, notes that “these impacts are not contained to city boundaries, but can negatively impact the quality of air, soil, water and livelihood options much further afield”.

It is regional and city governments that are best placed to understand and act upon the opportunities and constraints for systemic change within their portfolios. And it is therefore important that their voices and insights are heard on international platforms that are focused on issues of global significance. ICLEI works to elevate the collective voice of local and subnational governments in the United Nations Conventions, such as the CBD, which focuses on conserving biological diversity and sustainable, fair and equitable benefit sharing from its use.

“We deepened our focus on biodiversity in the city and regional context in 2006,” says Brand. At the ICLEI World Congress, ICLEI, in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN), launched the pioneering global Local Action for Biodiversity (LAB) Programme, highlighting the importance of local biodiversity action.

Launching a dedicated global center and creating platforms for peer exchange and learning

LAB was a world-first initiative developed in response to a request from the City of Cape Town and Ethekwini Municipality in South Africa and the City of Edmonton in Canada for an enhanced focus on biodiversity action at the local level. This exciting pilot project initially worked with 21 pioneer cities of varying sizes and capacity to assess and mainstream biodiversity, as well as identify the value that biodiversity assets provided the city and its citizens. LAB soon expanded to connect and support more than 50 committed cities from around the world. The themes of the LAB Programme were expanded in its second phase to include linkages between biodiversity and climate change, communication, education and public awareness.

ICLEI adopted LAB as its global biodiversity programme and granted ICLEI Africa approval to host a global biodiversity centre in 2008. ICLEI officially launched the CBC in 2010. With ICLEI offices across the globe and a range of local and global partners and stakeholders, ICLEI CBC supports cities and regions in finding and implementing innovative institutional and on-the-ground solutions to reclaim, restore and protect biodiversity. It also ensures that the voices of local and subnational governments are heard in global processes.

Biodiversity action and nature-based development have been mainstreamed as one of ICLEI’s five integrated pathways in its ICLEI Malmö Commitment and Strategic Vision 2021-2027. Through the dedicated commitment of, and collaboration with, ICLEI’s Regional Offices and its World Secretariat, ICLEI CBC has significantly strengthened its reach and ability to mobilize cities and other subnational governments.

Advocating for the collective voice of cities and regions

“For nearly two decades, we have invested in local, national and international advocacy for the voices of local and subnational governments,” says Brand. These ongoing efforts resulted in our contribution to the ‘Edinburgh Process’ that led to the 2020 Edinburgh Declaration on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The Declaration calls for “greater prominence of the role of subnational governments, cities and local authorities in delivering on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework”[6] and is set to be adopted at the upcoming CBD Congress of the Parties (COP) 15.

ICLEI’s work over the years in the biodiversity and urban nature space has contributed significantly to growing awareness of the role of regions and cities in driving the sustainability transition. In 2007, 32 mayors of major cities met in Curitiba, Brazil with the CBD Secretariat and drafted the Curitiba Declaration on Cities and Biodiversity, actively committing themselves to contributing to CBD objectives and the 2010 biodiversity targets. The first Cities Biodiversity Summit was held in Germany at the CBD COP 9 resulting in the Bonn Declaration. Further commitments were made at a 2008 LAB meeting hosted by the City of Durban, South Africa through the Durban Commitment: Local Governments for Biodiversity.

The role of cities and regions was further entrenched at the CBD COP 10 in 2010 and the second Cities Biodiversity Summit through the Aichi/Nagoya Declaration on Local Authorities and Biodiversity and the historic CBD Decision X/22 on the 2011-2020 CBD Plan of Action on Cities, Local Authorities and Biodiversity. This was the first and only such dedicated Decision on subnational governments in the history of Rio Conventions.

ICLEI’s work, through the CBC, to elevate the collective voice of cities and regions at the international level was recognized in 2012 with a memorandum of understanding signed with the CBD. Hillel notes that “ICLEI has played an instrumental role in deepening the CBD’s focus on local and subnational governments, and has contributed to every breakthrough that the CBD has had in this regard. Today we are the only United Nations body with a unilateral environmental agreement with a specific provision on regions and cities to ensure coherence among levels of government.”

ICLEI CBC has co-hosted Biodiversity Summits for Cities and Subnational Governments as official parallel events to the CBD COP 12, 13 and 14, held in 2014, 2016 and 2018, respectively. At each consecutive Summit, further progress was made in strengthening the voice and appreciation of the critical role that local and subnational governments play in the global biodiversity agenda, both at policy and implementation levels.

Hillel points out that ICLEI has recently been selected to join the BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative, convened in partnership by the World Economic Forum and the Government of Columbia. The Commission brings together experts, practitioners, academia and civil society to find evidence-based solutions to support “sustainable, inclusive and nature-positive urban development”. According to Hillel, ICLEI will play a key role in the Commission in helping to “generate the blueprint for truly green cities – both within city boundaries and their larger footprint”.

Providing tools for local and subnational governments

“We recognize that cities and regions operate in different contexts, with different priorities, capabilities and capacities. ICLEI therefore designs its tools, projects and solutions to be contextual and uses iterative learning to improve and adapt them,” says Brand.

ICLEI CBC has published a range of comprehensive guidebooks and manuals. Out of LAB, which required a three- to six-year commitment from the cities, ICLEI developed the concept of Local Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans (LBSAPs). These plans are guiding strategies with accompanying actions that local governments can adapt to their own contexts to manage biodiversity and ecosystem services. These plans, now used by a growing number of countries, inform National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans prescribed for all CBD Parties.

ICLEI has developed, co-developed and shared tools from others with an expanding network of subnational governments wanting to mainstream biodiversity and ecosystem management into their planning and implementation processes.

“We knew that we needed to expand the LAB network to enable more cities to engage and share knowledge and resources to support a sustainability transition,” says Brand. This took shape as the innovative global CitiesWithNature partnership initiative, launched by co-founders ICLEI, IUCN and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) at the ICLEI World Congress in 2018. The online CitiesWithNature platform was activated as a free, easily accessible and open platform for cities at the sixth Global Biodiversity Summit of Local and Subnational Governments in 2018.

Scaling action and knowledge through CitiesWithNature and RegionsWithNature

CitiesWithNature is a partnership initiative between ICLEI, IUCN, TNC, WWF, the United Nations Environment Programme and many other organizations that provides an innovative online platform to support a co-evolution of cities with nature. It offers access to an extensive array of guides, tools and case studies to help cities and city regions redefine their relationship with nature. This interactive platform is recognized by the CBD. The soon to be launched Action Platform component will enable cities and regions to share and report on their actions to protect nature and their contributions to national and global biodiversity targets. To address the specific needs of regional governments and territories, a new sister initiative, RegionsWithNature, is currently under development. Both the Action Platform and RegionsWithNature will be launched at ICLEI’s Daring Cities Conference in October 2021.

The CBD envisages four bodies/platforms working together to implement the subnational execution of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and Plan of Action on Subnational Governments, Cities and Other Local Authorities for Biodiversity (2021-2030). These are the two formally constituted Advisory Committees to the CBD – the Advisory Committee on Local Governments and Biodiversity and the Advisory Committee on Subnational Governments and Biodiversity. ICLEI is the Secretariat of the former. The committees’ main objectives are to coordinate the contribution and participation of all levels of subnational government in processes under the CBD and to act as an advocacy platform for enhanced cooperation between CBD Parties and all levels of subnational government.

The two implementation-orientated platforms are CitiesWithNature and RegionsWithNature, which act as multi-stakeholder platforms at the local and regional levels for learning, measuring and commitment. The soon-to-be launched Action Platform is a key component of these two digital platforms, as it serves as the vehicle for tracking and reporting on actions implemented at the local and subnational levels.

Enabling and supporting systemic and integrated solutions

As the world finds itself in the grips of an evolving pandemic, we have also entered the so-called Decade of Action, with less than 10 years to meet the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The world is not on track to meet the SDG targets and it will not be possible to meet them with a business-as-usual approach. In June 2021, the United Nations’ Decade on Ecosystem Restoration was officially launched, with ambitious goals to protect and restore the land and marine ecosystems on which human life depends.

Brand notes that “As tipping points are fast approaching, the world needs cities to act – individually and together – in faster, bolder and more concrete ways than ever before to ensure an inclusive, equitable and greener recovery that will also restore humanity’s relationship with nature.

In these important times, and in the years ahead, ICLEI – through its 24 offices, thousands of member and network cities, and many partnerships – stands committed and ready to enable and support systemic and integrated solutions, with nature as a core component of all recovery plans. We will continue to seek more ways for cities to access finance for implementation and for nature to not only be embedded into climate actions, but to drive lifestyle and behavioral changes, in alignment with a One Health approach.”

[1] IUCN. n.d. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. [Online] Available:

[2] World Bank. 2020. COVID-19 to add as many as 150 million extreme poor by 2021. [Online] Available:

[3] Waldron, A. et al. (2020). Protecting 30% of the Planet for Nature: Costs, Benefits and Economic Implications. In Dasgupta, P. 2021. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. London: HM Treasury, pp438

[4] Waldron, A. et al. (2020). Protecting 30% of the Planet for Nature: Costs, Benefits and Economic Implications. In Dasgupta, P. 2021. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. London: HM Treasury, pp438

[5] Wahba, T., Sameh, N., Wellenstein, A., Das, M., Palmarini, N., D’Aosut, O., Singh, G., Restrepo, C., Goga, S. Terraza, H., Lakovits, C., Baeumler, A. & Gapihan A. 2021. Demographic Trends and Urbanization. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group

[6] Scottish Government. 2020. Edinburgh Declaration on post-2020 global biodiversity framework. [Online] Available: