Arriving early one morning at Denver Union Station, the city’s passenger rail terminal and local transportation hub, I was greeted by a disappointingly long chain of open railcars brimming with coal. It’s been over 30 years since the 1988 hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource when Congress was alerted by preeminent climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, of the irrefutable connection between anthropogenic climate change and the need for immediate action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, the coal cars continue to roll.

That 1988 hearing was convened by then Colorado Senator Tim Wirth. While the federal government failed to act, major international and local climate bodies were established, including the International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI)i in 1990, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

ICLEI’s Initial efforts, powered by founder, Jeb Brugmann, focused on consciousness-raising and elevating local governments’ role to drive global climate change and sustainable development solutions. With funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ICLEI created the first of its kind Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) program, which included technical and political support for local government action plan development and an initial group of supporting programs: Climate Wise, Transportation Partners, Heat Island, and Waste Partners.

The City of Toronto, Ontario, Canada was named the ICLEI World Secretariat. The National League of Cities, and cities of Tucson, Saint Paul, and Berkeley became the pioneering ICLEI governance committee members.

Angie Fyfe
Coal cars in back of Denver Union Station

Supported by ICLEI, Toronto adopted the world’s first greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target and Portland, Oregon and Saint Paul, Minnesota adopted the first U.S. Climate Action Plans in 1992. By 1994, ICLEI member Santa Monica had emerged as the local government leader in the U.S. sustainability movement.

By 1996, ICLEI membership and CCP participation included 47 U.S. local governments, growing to more than 600 at its peak in 2011. ICLEI pioneered local climate action, being the first and still largest network of U.S. cities and regions devoted to building a sustainable future through domestic and international dialogues, education, capacity building, and evidence-based action.

ICLEI’s U.S. launch spawned a global network of 1,500+ cities, towns and regions committed to building a sustainable future, impacting more than 25 percent of the global urban population. Local and regional governments across the ICLEI network work alongside a diverse team of global experts in 22 offices active across 124 countries. Together, the network addresses the local impacts of global change, from climate change to urbanization through five pathways: low to no carbon; nature-based, resilient, circular, and equitable.

Unique to ICLEI is its support of any local government that seeks to participate. New York City is the largest U.S. based member and Yountville California (population 3,010) its smallest. ICLEI’s U.S. headquarters is proudly located in Denver and supported by expert staff based on the east and west coasts.

Supported by global biodiversity, renewable energy, mobility, resilience, and advocacy experts and programming at the ICLEI World Secretariat (now based in Bonn Germany) ICLEI USA primarily engages with U.S. cities through its GHG accounting protocols, emissions management and climate adaptation software applications and via technical support and peer learning.

Since Rio 1992, ICLEI has represented local governments in the area of global advocacy. As of Conference of Parties (COP) 1, ICLEI has served as the focal point for the UNFCCC Local Governments and Municipal Authorities working group. As such, it is the conduit for cities and regions and networks representing this constituency at the UNFCCC. Admitted as an observer by the COP, focal points provide for the exchange of official information between their constituents and the UNFCCC secretariat; ensure the effective and appropriate participation at intergovernmental meetings; coordinate observer interaction at sessions including convening constituency meetings; identify speakers and representation at official functions; and provides logistical support to constituents during sessions.

ICLEI USA regularly hosts delegations of local elected officials and staff at the COPs, including a delegation who inspired the development of the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015 and a delegation to build confidence in continued U.S. city and region action at COP23 in 2017.

In addition to climate, ICLEI also represents cities and regions at the Biodiversity COPs (Convention on Biological Diversity) and at UN HABITAT conferences, the most recent of which launched the New Urban Agenda.

ICLEI’s theory of change remains “local action – global change.” In a sense, this approach turns the well-known adage “Think Globally, Act Locally” on its head – “Act Locally, Coordinate Globally.” To coordinate globally in an effective way, however, ICLEI needs strong and productive local partners. The City and County of Denver is one such partner.

Inspired by Colorado leaders like Wirth, Denver became one of ICLEI’s first member cities in 1992. Over the past quarter century, it has developed an admirable record of local action and international, intercity collaboration.

  • Denver was one of the first U.S. cities to establish a comprehensive city sustainability plan and implementation program, Greenprint Denver, and to establish and hire a fulltime sustainability director in 2006.
  • Greenprint built strong community connections with academics, businesses, state government, and its neighbor in Golden, Colorado, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • Denver’s early action helped to build public support for Colorado Amendment 37 – the first ever voter-approved Renewable Energy Standard, passed in 2004. At that time, renewable energy made up just two percent of the state’s electricity mix. Amendment 37 required 3% of retail electricity sales in the year 2007 to be from renewable sources, with an increase to 10% by 2015. The state legislature expanded the portfolio requirements three times, and the state is on track to meet the 2020 requirement for investor-owned utilities to generate 30% of their electricity from renewable energy.
  • The City’s first Climate Action Plan, released in 2007, set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 10 percent per capita below 1990 levels by 2020. By 2010, the City had exceeded its target.
  • Meeting a per capita goal was impressive, but Denver was growing rapidly, and the climate is affected by total GHG emissions, not just per capita emissions. Increasing its ambition, in 2013 Denver set a goal of reducing total GHG emissions below its 1990 level by 2020. Denver is now on track to meet that goal.
  • Denver continued to set more ambitious science-based targets. In 2015 Denver set a goal of an 80% reduction in total GHG emissions by 2050. In 2018 it executed a memorandum of understanding with its electric utility provider to explore ambitious renewable energy deployment and carbon reduction goals. Later that year it released an updated climate action plan with interim goals of running city government operations on 100 percent renewable electricity in 2025 and the entire community on 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.

Denver’s strong example has been mirrored by those of other cities across ICLEI’s international network. Examples from network participants in ICLEI’s Urban Transitions Alliance include the post-industrial transformations of Gelsenkirchen (Germany) from a coal to solar city, Huairou District (Beijing) from concrete manufacturing community to mixed use through the application of adaptive reuse, and Katowice (Poland) from heavy industry to creative economy.

With the maturity of the local sustainability practice, originated at ICLEI and developed in partnership with Denver and others, a new capacity-building strategy emerged. The strategy involved the creation of ICLEI-like organizations targeting sustainability practitioners.

Once such organization is the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), which includes cities in the U.S. and Canada. USDN was established in 2008 by and for local government sustainability professionals in these parts of North America as an exclusive place to learn from each other. The smaller geographic scale made it possible for local governments to convene more frequently and to communicate more readily.

Denver hosted an early USDN meet-up and has participated in a number of its working groups and collaborative projects. In 2018 Denver hosted the annual conference of USDN, which in its ten years had grown from a handful of cities to over 150. In addition to Denver, the networks have considerable synergies across their membership rosters. Portland, New York, Fort Collins, Atlanta, and Palo Alto are just a few of the many locations active in each network.

Organizations like USDN have been strong allies of ICLEI, but not every nation and region is fortunate enough to have such an organization available. ICLEI continues to play an unique and pivotal role because of its international scope and decades of experience in enhancing sustainability capacity of cities across multiple continents, political systems and cultures through protocols, methodologies, and software application development and deployment.

Providing peer-capacity-building among established sustainability directors continues to build the expertise of those Directors and allows ICLEI to continue to focus on international collaborations and engagement of elected officials. It also offers ICLEI the opportunity to build capacity in a host of cities, towns, and counties new to the practice of climate and sustainability as well as building out new innovations for established cities.

One of the ways in which the networks work together is towards operationalizing the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy (GCom) in the U.S. ICLEI is a founding partner of the GCom and has engaged political leaders and practitioners in its activities since 2014. ICLEI USA Board member Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is the North American representative to the GCom Board of Directors. Together with other stakeholders, ICLEI USA and USDN will tap their networks and experience to establish the GCom activities for U.S. local governments.

Meanwhile, ICLEI’s strongest long-term local partners continue to play crucial roles in addressing anthropogenic climate change. Denver, for example, is a pilot city in one of the recent ICLEI innovations, the GHG Contribution Analysis toolkit, a new methodology that allows local communities to understand the Drivers of Change in their emissions’ management results and better communicate the impact of local climate actions. The analysis of the changes in Denver’s emissions between 2005 and 2015 demonstrates the importance of Colorado’s renewable energy standard and increased efficiency in commercial and residential buildings and vehicles. Not surprisingly, Denver has strengthened its relationship with its investor-owned electric utility and has emphasized building energy efficiency and electrification of transportation in its climate programs.

The Rio Summit spawned the era of local climate action. While as a nation, the United States has had its periods of action and inaction in the past decades, state and local governments continuously forge ahead. Long-term collaboration among such governments worldwide provides a bulwark against the vagaries of nation-level politics.

At the UNFCCC’s 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) in Bonn Germany last year, California Governor Jerry Brown and UN Special Envoy for Cities & Climate Change Michael Bloomberg released a report to map current non-federal climate policies and actions and identify areas to increase near-term action towards the Paris Agreement global climate goals to hold warming to 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Celsius by end of the century.

The report’s second phase to be released late in 2018 was expected to aggregate and quantify potential U.S. non-federal action and relate these actions to the U.S. emission target set for the Paris Agreement: an economy-wide GHG emissions reduction of 26-28 per cent below 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%.

The report offers a narrative of broad support for climate action – leaders committed to adhere to the Paris Agreement targets in spite of federal action against it – and widespread activity in non-federal entities.

At the request of the parties on the occasion of the Paris Agreement decision, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report October 2018 regarding the impacts of warming of 1.5°C and related global GHG emission pathways. The report seeks to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.

The IPCC report considered six conditions necessary to achieve 1.5°C without overshooting this level of warming; (1) Physics and chemistry (2) Technology (3) Investment (4) Lifestyle (5) Political support (6) Institutional capacity. The authors concluded that conditions one through four are feasible, yet the status of conditions five and six remains uncertain. The report further links the climate mitigation and adaptation to the Sustainable Development Goals and provides three pathways to achieve 1.5 °C.

The report is a named input to the Talanoa Dialogue, which COP24 negotiators participated in in Poland. Talanoa Dialogues, established by the COP23 presidency, Fiji, is a Pacific Islands approach to facilitated stakeholder engagement. Throughout 2018 ICLEI led the Cities and Regions Talanoa Dialogues. More than 45 countries hosted Talanoas, with Denver hosting one of just three to take place in the U.S.

The Denver Talanoa Dialogue brought together key actors from across Colorado’s climate and sustainability movement who shared inspirational and thought-provoking stories on what is needed to build political support and institutional capacity to fast-track Colorado towards a resilient, net-zero emissions world and contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Ultimately, the Denver Talanoa Dialogue contributed to the development of high-level messages presented at the political phase of the Talanoa Dialogue during COP24.

This is good news. As we’ve seen in the Talanoa Dialogue and Contribution Analysis results – cities are making progress, but they cannot stop the coal trains from rolling on their own.


    1. Shabecoff, P. Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate. The New York Times (June 24, 1988).

    2. Broehl, J. Colorado Voters Pass Renewable Energy Standard, Renewable Energy World (November 3, 2004)

    3. City and County of Denver Climate Action (online)

    4. America’s Pledge, Phase 1 Report States, Cities, and Businesses in the United States Are Stepping Up on Climate Action (Copyright © November 2017 Bloomberg Philanthropies).

    5. UNFCCC U.S.A. First NDC Submission (online)

    6. ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, 2018. Urban Transition Insights from Industrial Legacy Cities. Bonn, Germany.


i The name was legally changed to ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability in 2003.


Angie Fyfe

Executive Director of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability USA and a member of ICLEI’s global senior management team. Formerly Associate Director of the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office,...

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