When we think about sustainable lifestyles, we usually tend to frame the discussion around individual consumption choices and behaviours. However, these choices are not made in a void: in fact, they are the result of a complex interaction between preferences, constraints and available options. Consequently, sustainable lifestyles are heavily dependent on enabling environments that are conducive to more sustainable choices. But who is responsible for creating such environments? 

Since the discussion involves consumption patterns, the usual suspect is the private sector. However, there is another stakeholder that holds even more power to transform lifestyles: local governments. By creating norms that reward or constrain behaviours that shape the environment where individual decisions are made, local governments – especially cities – are placed in a unique position to foster behaviours that promote more sustainable lifestyles.  

Local policies can, for example, incentivize specific choices or decisions, making sustainable lifestyles more attractive and accessible. In Paris, the government is supporting the renovation of heating and water systems in buildings, aiming at reducing carbon emissions while also saving energy. Under the programme “Ma Prime Renov”, the government offers various credit schemes for people willing to conduct energy audits and replace older systems with greener options.  

Editing out choices that jeopardize sustainability is another crucial initiative that can arise from local regulation. In Mexico City, the government has put a ban on single-use plastic, including straws, cutlery and cups. The city has introduced the policy in phases to give businesses the time to find alternatives to plastic. By constraining the use of plastic, the legislation aims to change individual behaviours, encouraging people to find greener options. 

Cities are also investing in adaptation measures that offer significant benefits to lifestyles. In Beijing, the “sponge cities” project aims at increasing green urban areas and creating natural waterways which improve water drainage and evaporation, significantly reducing floods. With more parks and green areas, residents also benefit from added recreational spaces that support communal exchange – one element of sustainable lifestyles.  

These are only some examples of the transformative power that cities have in fostering behaviours that promote more sustainable lifestyles, which in turn offer great contributions to climate-resilient development. Local governments can act as multipliers by nudging the private sector and civil society into more sustainable practices and consolidating enabling environments that are conducive to greener lifestyles. As citizens it is our role to demand transformational change from local governments, supporting sustainable initiatives and pushing for local regulations that foster sustainable lifestyles.   

Want to know more about Sustainable Lifestyles? The UNSSC offers an online self-paced course for free. Register today at: Sustainable Lifestyles | UNSSC | United Nations System Staff College 

This blog is based on the author’s input as a speaker during the session titled “Sustainable Development and Climate Action” that was part of the visit of ICLEI South Korea to UN Bonn on 13 June 2023. You may reach out to Talita Pinotti at t.demellopinotti@unssc.org if you have any comments or questions.