German municipalities as pathmakers for a sustainable future: Leaders or followers?
Reducing their impact on and enhancing their adaption to climate change is one of the major challenges of cities in their ambition to increase sustainability. The 21st century has been called the ""century of the cities"", emphasizing the role of the local level in sustainability transitions. Thus, there is high interest in understanding municipalities' capabilities and limitations for creating impact. With this study, we aim to contribute to this field by examining the different roles municipalities embrace as well as their network of interactions with actors outside their administration. Our focus is on climate action as an exemplary field within the transition towards sustainability. The paper combines two empirical approaches: We contrast in-depth interviews with 17 selected representatives from cities and experts on municipal climate action with a broad survey of 554 German municipalities. Based on the interview study, assumptions are derived regarding the municipalities' perceptions of their respective roles in contributing to climate action. This also includes how they associate with actors outside their administration, e.g. international climate action, national policy makers, other cities or civil society. Furthermore, the municipalities' understanding of their central tasks in the field of climate action as well as their perceived scope of action with respect to the influence of higher levels of government is analysed. The findings from the interview study are complemented by the results of the broad survey to check for validity. We find that climate action is an important issue for German municipalities: In the survey, only 12 % reported rather low or low engagement in this field. The analysis of the interviews shows that the municipalities primarily see themselves as role models. Other than that, they take on various different roles and are in active exchange with citizens and other municipalities. In regards to higher levels of government, interactions are more limited. The comparison with the survey results demonstrates that this especially applies to smaller municipalities, which have more limited interactions overall. A key role, however, is assumed by superordinate levels of government with regards to their provision of funding and the regulatory framework they establish.