Sustainable development is a most important issue in today's global society. In September 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit formally adopted the "Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development" (hereinafter referred to as the 2030 Agenda) signed by 193 countries of the United Nations, establishing 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).
As part of its follow-up and review mechanisms, the 2030 Agenda encourages member states to conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, which are country-led and country-driven. These national reviews are expected to serve as a basis for the regular reviews by the high-level political forum (HLPF), meeting under the auspices of ECOSOC. Regular reviews by the HLPF are to be voluntary, state-led, undertaken by both developed and developing countries, and involve multiple stakeholders.
The Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) aim to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned, with a view to accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The VNRs also seek to strengthen policies and institutions of governments and to mobilize multi-stakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Under the framework of VNR, an increasing number of local governments are also participating in implementing the 2030 Agenda, making regional or local contributions to the realization of the SDGs.
From Voluntary National Reviews to Voluntary Local Reviews
When adopting the 2030 Agenda, United Nations member States committed to working closely with local and regional governments on the implementation of the SDGs. The 2030 Agenda calls on major groups and other stakeholders, including local authorities, to report on their contribution to the implementation of the Agenda. Since 2015, metropolises, small cities, regions and their associations alike have been actively localizing the 2030 Agenda, bringing the SDGs closer to the people they serve and using the framework as a tool for planning and execution.
In this spirit, local and regional governments are increasingly engaging in such sub-national reviews of SDG implementation, also called Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs). While the VLRs hold no official status, the process of undertaking these sub-national reviews is providing multiple benefits to the entities engaging in them and to SDG implementation at large. These VLRs can also help to reinforce vertical coherence and complement and contribute to the national Voluntary National Reviews of SDG implementation. As of the end of 2020, 41 cities or local governments have submitted VLRs to the United Nations website, providing valuable references of implementing SDGs for local governments all around the world.
New York: OneNYC Leading the Voluntary Local Review Progress
In April 2015, New York City committed to becoming the most resilient, sustainable, and equitable city in the world through its groundbreaking OneNYC strategy. OneNYC is a model for sustainable development at the local level, includeing commitments, milestones, and metrics. In September 2015, the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs recognized the overlap between their local strategy and the SDGs, and thus established the Global Vision | Urban Action Program to use the SDGs framework to talk about shared challenges and solutions with global partners.
Three years after OneNYC was launched, significant progress has been made in urban construction in New York City, such as a decline in crime rates, an increase in community safety and improvements in environmental protection. On May 1, 2018, NYC became the first city in the world to submit its VLR directly to the United Nations during the HLPF. The review is a presentation of existing NYC information in a format that is accessible to the UN community as well as other stakeholders following the SDG process, in line with United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) documents recognizing the key role of local governments in the implementation of the SDGs.
To complement the written report, NYC government developed a series of site visits for the UN diplomatic community, including a trip to the country’s largest recycling facility to explore Global Goal 12, a ride on a sludge vessel to learn about Global Goal 6, and a tour of a community garden to delve into Global Goal 15. Through this process, local agencies have actively engaged in linking NYC's local sustainability work to the SDGs.
After the 2018 HLPF, NYC government has been shareing its VLR model with cities around the world and encouraging other local governments to join in submitting VLR at following HLPFs. In April 2019, NYC government launched a comprehensive strategic plan OneNYC 2050, and formally incorporated the SDG indicators directly in OneNYC.
Guangzhou: a Mega-City's Road Towards Green Development
The Chinese government attaches great importance to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and is one of the first countries to participate in the VNRs. Under the guidance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Guangzhou has started the VLR progress since February 2020. At the beginning of 2021, the Vibrancy, Inclusion, and Openness; a Mega-City's Road Towards Green Development- UN SDGs Guangzhou Voluntary Local Review was released in full on the United Nations official website. Guangzhou became China's first city that submitted and released VLR to the United Nations.
Guangzhou’s VLR was jointly compiled utilizing relevant government departments, professional research institutes, and social organizations with instructions from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network China Hub; it was hosted by the Institute for Sustainable Development Goals of Tsinghua University and experts from several local universities, research institutes, and think tanks. The compilation of the VLR dovetailed with the public engagement of the 2035 Strategic Planning of Guangzhou. It also adopted an online + offline method to extensively understand the public’s awareness of an urban development vision and get their opinions on SDGs. More than 16,000 copies of the questionnaire and over 4,000 opinions and suggestions were collected.
Building upon abundant information provided by the UN SDG website and the VLR statement framework, Guangzhou VLR's group took into consideration China's National Plan on Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and relevant plans produced by different levels of government. It consulted with agencies specializing in sustainable development based in Guangzhou, to build a localized system on VLR outcomes. During the evaluation process, Guangzhou reviewed the response correlation between urban development strategy and 17 SDGs. Five prioritized review targets: Quality Education (SDG 4), Clear Drinking Water and Sanitation Facilities (SDG 6), Industry Innovation and Infrastructure (SDG 9), Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11) and Life on Land (SDG 15) were selected for in-depth evaluation.
Through the production of VLR, Guangzhou has further implemented the concept of sustainable development in four aspects, namely land and space control, high-quality development, high-quality life, and high-level governance. At the end of the report, Guangzhou promises to gradually form a long-term working mechanism to make unremitting efforts to build a sustainable city with more vibrancy, inclusion, and openness.
VLR as an Analytical Tool and Global Network
The VLR gives local governments of all sizes a concrete tool to become directly involved with the work of the United Nations. In the process of preparing the VLR report, local governments must liaise with the country’s policy agencies and all relevant local organizations and individuals. Multiple platforms (both online and offline) and activities in the community can be fully utilized, and interviews and surveys are made to encourage more public engagement. Therefore, making voluntary reviews give both national and local governments an opportunity to systematically conclude their development issues, and will surely pay more attention to the SDGS in future development.
By submitting and releasing VLR report to international platforms for public review and release, cities and local governments also gain a global network in which they can learn and share with each other. Leading governments play an exemplary role on the implementation of sustainable development, while all the members can move forward with their global partners and make contributions to sustainable development together.