Laying the Groundwork for Local Climate Collaboration: The Role of Dialogue and Ownership


We helped municipalities develop concrete climate plans, and will continue working closely with them and the national government to ensure that these plans become a reality.

By Paola Adriázola, Yachika Reddy and Simisha Pather-Elias


As in much of the world, municipal officials in South Africa face multiple sustainability and development challenges. Towns and cities in South Africa have a clear understanding of the impacts of climate change and are moving forward with integrated and effective responses. Often, however, the institutional frameworks and technical capacities are conducive to siloed discussions about planning and implementation.

Part of the solution here is a collaborative approach to climate change planning and project implementation across sectors and levels of government. To help build this ethos and put it into practice, the V-LED project (“Vertical Integration and Learning for Low-Emission Development”) has been working with South African municipalities and the national Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment for the past six years to facilitate dialogue and support municipal capacities. This work has paid off: Emalahleni Local Municipality and Nkangala District Municipality in Mpumalanga Province – the hotspot for South Africa’s just transition – are working towards adopting and institutionalising vertically-aligned and cross-sectoral climate change strategies and gearing up for implementation.

The key questions behind this work include: How can we achieve better outcomes in municipal climate planning and implementation by forging collaborative governance? What are the key ingredients for an intersectoral and multilevel dialogue process? The knowledge and experience acquired from the project since 2015 reveal two success factors.

1. Establish dialogue on an equal footing, from a neutral standpoint        

The path towards net zero and climate resilience necessitates the involvement of the national government – which sets the guiding policy and controls fiscal flows in the country – and cities and towns where service delivery for citizens takes place. While these services are affected by the impacts of climate change, they also have tremendous mitigation potential – for example in roads, energy distribution, water infrastructure, waste management and overall city planning. However, the multilevel governance system has entrenched power and capacity asymmetries; as a result, the engagement of national and municipal institutions needs to actively disrupt the established order so as to create an open and level playing field. Only with dialogue on equal footing and strong capacities in place can local actors speak up on behalf of the priorities of their citizens. And only this kind of exchange enables the national government to gain a much deeper understanding of the workings at the municipal level.

In South Africa, the V-LED team at Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA) acted as a neutral convenor of a dialogue platform between institutions from the municipal, provincial and national governments from 2015 until 2021. This brokerage achieved two objectives. First, it provided a neutral space, allowing individuals to discuss climate change issues as technical experts working side by side in a setting that built trust over time. Secondly, the strategy provided continuity – often, exchange between stakeholders ends up neglected in light of other, more pressing priorities. In this juncture, V-LED was able to close the gap, injecting momentum into the dialogue process.

2. Increase capacities while ensuring municipal ownership of the process   

A municipal strategy represents a key first step for concrete climate action. Often, however, climate change strategies are developed by external consultants that do not have buy-in from the municipal teams – who then face obstacles putting the strategies into practice.

In Emalahleni Local Municipality and Nkangala District Municipality, V-LED aided the municipal teams in engaging all the relevant municipal departments and ensuring that their institutional knowledge contributed to the strategy. In a capacity-constrained environment, these networks allow individuals to draw on collective experience and expert skills to resolve challenges experienced in the field. Municipalities are not usually equipped with the staff and capacities to lead this kind of interdisciplinary dialogue process. While technical experts sit in the municipalities, the set of skills for cross-departmental coordination are rarer. The V-LED project acted as a custodian to the process, ensuring that a suitable department remained in the driver’s seat at all times. This ensured that key municipal staff maintained ownership of the strategy and that the institutional knowledge gained was not lost at the end of the V-LED project. That stated, the limited human and financial resources and capacities in smaller municipalities represent a major challenge. Municipal staff, already overwhelmed with the response to the pandemic along with every day infrastructure and service delivery concerns, are also responsible for the long-term planning vital to climate change action.

The next steps

As the V-LED project draws to a close, we plan to continue our support for local climate action in South Africa. After developing a climate strategy or plan, the next big hurdle is how to finance municipal action and ensure implementation. Recognising the limited local capacities with regards to revenue streams and models, SEA is now exploring ways in which municipalities can cross-subsidise services for the poor and new business models for accruing revenue that can then be allocated to low-emission development.

As local governments in South Africa work towards building climate resilience while recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, collaboration, trust and ownership continue to represent crucial success factors.

The Vertical Integration and Learning for Low-Emission Development project is implemented by Sustainable Energy Africa (South Africa), adelphi (Berlin), and the Institute for Law and Environmental Governance (Kenya). We believe that local and regional governments are crucial to addressing climate change. Our work seeks to strengthen the capacities and governance structures that will enable them to play an effective role in forging just, low-emission futures and opportunities for resilient communities. The project is supported by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) as part of its International Climate Initiative.