Back-pedaling or continuing quietly? Assessing the impact of ICLEI
membership termination on cities’ sustainability actions
, Rachel M. Krauseb and Richard C. Feiockc
a John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA;
b School of Public Affairs and Administration, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA;
c Askew School of Public Administration and Policy, Florida State University, Tallahassee,
This article was published in Environmental Politics.
Please cite the article in the following format:
Yi, H., Krause, R. M., & Feiock, R. C. (2017). Back-pedaling or continuing quietly? Assessing
the impact of ICLEI membership termination on cities’ sustainability actions. Environmental
Politics, 26(1), 138-160
* Corresponding Author. Email: email@example.com
Back-pedaling or continuing quietly? Assessing the impact of ICLEI
membership termination on cities’ sustainability actions
, Rachel M. Krauseb and Richard C. Feiockc
a John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA;
b School of Public Affairs and Administration, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA;
c Askew School of Public Administration and Policy, Florida State University, Tallahassee,
Over the past decade, cities have emerged as leaders in sustainability and climate
protection in the United States. ICLEI, a voluntary network of local governments, played
an important role driving this trend. After years of steady growth, ICLEI became a target
of political opposition and its membership dropped significantly from 2010 to 2012. This
begs the question of whether cities’ termination of their ICLEI affiliation diminishes their
implementation of sustainability actions. Two surveys administered in 2010 and 2014
provide data on cities’ implementation of an array of sustainability actions. Using a
difference-in-differences method, the impact of ICLEI termination on local governments’
administrative and policy commitments to sustainability is assessed. The results suggest
that ending ICLEI membership does not significantly impact local sustainability actions,
and also indicate that the durability of policy actions may be only loosely linked to the
policies that justify them.
Keywords: local sustainability; policy termination; climate protection; local politics;
treatment effects; difference-in-differences
Word count: 8492
Efforts to promote sustainability have emerged as an important local government function in the
United States. Cities engage and often play leadership roles in a variety of initiatives that further
sustainability, including those that specifically target reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
in order to mitigate climate change (Portney 2004, Lubell et al. 2009, Krause 2012, Feiock et al.
2014, Kwon et al. 2014, Wang et al. 2012). Despite the United States’ political inability to
* Corresponding Author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
develop comprehensive national climate legislation, hundreds of cities have made voluntary
public commitments to reduce their GHG emissions. Much of this was facilitated by the
transnational non-governmental organization International Council for Local Environmental
Initiatives (ICLEI)-Local Governments for Sustainability which, for over a decade, provided
municipalities with what was widely regarded as the most important platform for substantive
climate commitments (Betsill and Bulkeley 2004 2007 2013, Krause 2012). In recent years,
however, as political polarization on sustainability issues increased and as municipalities
experienced fiscal stress, large numbers of cities terminated their ICLEI memberships. This
context offers a unique opportunity to investigate the consequences that withdrawal from
voluntary environmental programs has on the underlying governmental actions to which they are
In this study, we examine the intersection of three different literatures: urban
sustainability and climate protection governance; voluntary environmental organizations; and
policy termination. We draw from and contribute to filling gaps in each stream of literature.
Multiple studies examine why, given the incentives to free-ride, cities pursue greenhouse gas
mitigation initiatives, yet the question of what factors influence the decisions to end them has
received limited attention (Krause et al. 2016). Voluntary environmental programs (VEPs) are
also well studied, but primarily from an economic perspective of club goods focused on the
motivations and consequences of joining VEPs rather than on factors associated with withdrawal
from them (Prakash and Potoski 2006). Furthermore, most VEP studies examine the membership
practices of private rather than public sector organizations. The literature on policy termination
as part of the policy process is likewise underdeveloped (Geva-May 2004, Graddy and Ye 2008).
Although withdrawing from ICLEI does not necessarily reflect a city’s complete termination of
climate protection policy, it is an explicit and policy-relevant closure point and examining its
consequences can broaden understanding about this stage of the policy process.
In the next section, we survey the literature on voluntary environmental organizations and
situate ICLEI within it. We then describe local sustainability and climate protection efforts
among U.S. cities. Then we summarize the current state of knowledge on policy termination and
its consequences, and advance testable hypotheses on the impact that withdrawal from ICLEI has
on administrative and policy commitment to local sustainability. We utilize a unique panel
dataset to track changes in local sustainability efforts from 2010 to 2014, and employ a series of
difference-in-differences (DiD) models to test the causal impacts of membership termination, as
a special form of policy intervention, on the continuation of sustainability efforts at the local
level. Finally, we discuss the implications of the results on voluntary environmental programs
and policy theory.
Voluntary environmental programs and ICLEI CCP
Around the world, local governments have become important climate policy innovators. The
organization ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability is credited with facilitating the
emergence of many of these municipal leaders (Lindseth 2004, Bulkeley and Betsill 2003 2013).
Over 1,000 municipalities in 84 countries are ICLEI members, with the greatest numbers being
located in the United States, Australia, South Korea, India and the European Union (ICLEI
Cities that joined ICLEI’s flagship program, Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) – which
has recently been rebranded and expanded to promote low-carbon cities and the Green Climate
Cities program – agree to follow a five-milestone process to reduce GHG emissions. The
milestones can be applied to a city government’s own operations or the community as a whole
and include: conducting a baseline emissions inventory; adopting an emissions reduction goal;
developing a local climate action plan (CAP); implementing the policies and actions contained in
the CAP; and monitoring and verifying results. Cities pay ICLEI a modest fee for membership –
which in the United States ranges from $600 to $8,000 based on population size – and ICLEI
provides member cities with support and targeted technical assistance (ICLEI USA 2014).
Although cities can pursue GHG reductions without being members of ICLEI, the
academic community has treated its membership as synonymous to the existence of meaningful
local climate protection efforts (Brody et al. 2008, Sharp et al. 2011, Zahran et al. 2008).
Previous investigations of the factors that influence US cities to voluntarily pursue ICLEI
membership found larger, more educated and liberal populations, less GHG intense local
economies, and greater vulnerability to weather related disasters increased the propensity to
commit (Krause 2012, Sharp et al. 2011, Zahran et al. 2008). ICLEI membership is also related
to the size of the local green economy, as metropolitan areas with greater ICLEI membership
produce more green jobs (Yi 2013). Cities both join and follow-through with their commitments
on their own initiative; ICLEI as an organization has no enforcement mechanisms to verify
compliance or punish affiliated cities for not achieving the milestones. It relies on self-reports
from cities to monitor milestone progress. Controlling for possible self-selection biases, ICLEI
membership has resulted in cities implementing a modestly larger number of climate protecting
actions compared to what would have occurred in the absence of membership (Krause 2012).
Many environmental initiatives, particularly those that target climate protection, are
voluntary in nature. A robust literature exists on voluntary environmental programs (VEPs), but
this perspective has not been explicitly applied to ICLEI. VEPs are an innovative environmental
governance tool most often examined in the context of private firms as a possible alternative to
command and control regulation (Van der Heijden 2015). Studies on VEPs consider three
distinct sets of questions: Why do organizations join? What impact do they have on members’
environmental behavior? And what conditions influence their effectiveness?
Multiple theories provide insight into what explains membership in voluntary programs
(Coglianese and Nash 2014, de Vries et al. 2012, Van der Heijden 2012 2014). Among these
competing perspectives, club theory explains membership as motivated by the excludable
benefits of VEPs (Prakash and Potoski 2006 2007, Potoski and Prakash 2009). Enhanced
branding or reputational benefits associated with being socially responsible or ‘green’ is a
primary reward obtained through VEP membership (Prakash and Potoski 2006, Morgenstern and
Pizer 2007). The value of environmental reputation depends on the preferences of the
stakeholders or constituents that a firm is trying to please. Other club benefits include specialized
technical assistance or policy guidance. Club theory views membership decisions as the product
of a rational comparison between the exclusive benefits and cost of joining a VEP (Prakash and
Potoski 2006). Assessments of the impact VEPs have on members’ environmental behavior vary
considerably (e.g. Morgenstern and Pizer 2007, King and Lenox 2000, Potoski and Prakash
2005), indicating the importance of context and program design for facilitating success. In this
regard, monitoring and enforcement are pointed to as essential for effective VEPs since, in order
to preserve reputation, members must fulfill the agreed upon commitment (Prakash and Potoski
2007, Potoski and Prakash 2009).
The extant literature typically considers governments as ‘supporters’ or ‘assemblers’ of
VEPs rather than as members themselves (Van der Heijden 2015). In this study, we apply a
different perspective by treating municipal governments as VEP participants who take the
initiative to join and implement corresponding policy actions. Given its substantive focus and the
fact that member cities join completely on their own accord, ICLEI fits the definition of a VEP.
Although its lack of monitoring and enforcement theoretically decrease the effectiveness of its
implementation (Van der Heijden 2012; Prakash and Potoski 2007; Potoski and Prakash 2009),
ICLEI has been shown to be effective in reducing emissions and promoting green economic
development at the local level (Krause 2012, Yi 2013). Such effectiveness warrants the
treatment of ICLEI as a potentially strong VEP. Following the research tradition of the VEP
literature to investigate the impacts of membership on environmental behaviors, we examine the
impacts of terminating VEPs, the inverse of joining.
Trends in US local climate policy
Three ‘eras’ in local climate policy in the US largely mirror the rise, success, and struggles of
ICLEI (Krause 2014). The first era, described as one of ‘climate pioneers’, dates back to 1991
and ICLEI CCP’s precursor, the Urban CO2 Reduction Program. This United Nations-sponsored
program worked with 14 municipalities worldwide – six of which were located in the U.S. – to
develop comprehensive locally-focused GHG reduction strategies and measurements. By 1993
this program had transitioned into ICLEI CCP and the number of cities that were climate-active
increased slowly throughout the next decade. These early innovators often had prior experience
pursuing environmental and quality of life issues and benefitted from the active support of local
officials—including frequently a mayor—who pushed for local action (Bulkeley and Betsill
The second era, which extended from 2005 to 2010, is characterized by rapid acceleration
in the number of cities making climate commitments. During these five years, ICLEI
membership increased from 150 to 673 municipalities (cities, counties and townships) (ICLEI
Global 2015). This acceleration was aided by the Kyoto Protocol’s passage in 2005, which
occurred without the participation of the U.S. and led some US cities to make GHG reduction
commitments as an act of political protest. Soon, the protest motivation was overwhelmed by a
larger bandwagon effect reflecting momentum and excitement behind the idea that the United
States could meaningfully engage in GHG reduction through local efforts. However, not all of
the ICLEI cities would actually complete the five ICLEI milestones, resulting in some criticism
of symbolic policy making (Krause 2012) and an observed gap between climate policy ‘rhetoric
and reality’ (Betsill and Bulkeley 2007).
The third era is witness to a decline in the momentum behind explicit climate protection
initiatives and a noteworthy number of withdrawals from ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection
program. By 2010, cities, still hit hard by the economic recession, were running out of federal
stimulus funds provided in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to
pursue energy efficiency and sustainability. Moreover, Tea Party affiliated organizations and
other ‘small government’ interest groups increasingly engaged in anti-ICLEI political opposition.
Largely fueled by its early connections to the United Nations and Agenda 21, ICLEI became a
focal point for fears and conspiracy theories that sustainability planning was an organized effort
to take property rights away from US citizens (Kaufman and Zernike 2012, Krause et al. 2016,
Berry and Portney 2016). As one illustration of this, the John Birch Society activist organization
warns on its website that, through your home town or city’s membership in ICLEI – Local
Governments for Sustainability, ‘Agenda 21 seeks for the government to curtail your freedom to
travel as you please, own a gas-powered car, live in suburbs or rural areas, and raise a family’.
Readers are encouraged to target ‘the local level by organizing and informing others to
encourage local government officials to end their community’s membership in ICLEI…’ (John
Birch Society 2015). Between 2010 and 2012, the number of US member cities in ICLEI
decreased by almost 25 percent (see Figure 1). This decline appears to be largely a US
phenomenon as global ICLEI membership remained relatively constant during this time (ICLEI
Figure 1 here
ICLEI membership requires explicit commitment to a process rather than a specific GHG
reduction goal or function. Abandonment ends cities’ formal use of this process and any
assistance it had received with implementation. Although ICLEI membership is a frequently
used proxy for cities’ climate commitment, the substantive effect of its termination on related
actions is uncertain. Withdrawal may represent a significant underlying attitudinal shift away
from climate protection as an objective, followed by a systematic reversal of related actions. It
may occur in the absence of a larger attitudinal shift, yet result in reduced climate efforts as a
practical consequence of there being fewer resources and less expertise available.
Alternatively, participation in ICLEI may provide tools, build capacity and embed new
technologies into ongoing practice such that the abandonment of a formal ICLEI affiliation
results in no difference beyond the nominal change in membership status. Finally, it is possible
that some member cities opted out of ICLEI in favor of more stringent programs with more
substantive sustainability requirements and stronger reputations.
Policy termination and withdrawal from ICLEI
A city’s withdrawal from ICLEI does not necessarily indicate the termination of its larger
climate protection policy. It does, however, represent an explicit decision to deviate from the
status quo and signals the end of a relationship and specific approach to achieving GHG
reductions. As such, an exploration of the literature on policy termination is relevant to
understanding the dynamic surrounding the withdrawal from voluntary environmental
organizations. Several empirical studies examine factors that drive local governments to end
particular programs or policies (Graddy and Ye 2008, Krause et al. 2016, Lamothe and Lamothe
2012), but policy termination theory has not explicitly addressed withdrawal from voluntary
environmental programs and no existing studies empirically evaluate the effect of termination on
their treatment of associated objectives and actions. The case of ICLEI directs policy termination
theory to a new issue and aim.
The classic stages theory of the public policy process depicts an ordered set of steps,
which includes agenda setting, formulation, legitimation, implementation, evaluation and
termination (May and Wildavsky 1978, deLeon 1997). Under this conceptualization, termination
serves both to close the door on old policies and open it for new ones. Although it signifies both
the end and beginning of the policy cycle, its function as the former is generally emphasized, as
illustrated by its description as the ‘deliberate conclusion or cessation of specific government
functions, organizations, policies or programs’ (Brewer and deLeon 1983).
Policy termination first received attention as a research area in the mid-1970s (Bardach
1976, deLeon 1978) but only sporadic attention since. Published research on the topic includes
case studies that respectively examine the termination of the Interstate Commerce Commission
(Best et al. 1997), public health service hospitals (Frantz 1997), term limits on state legislature
(Harris 2001) and the national solidarity program in Mexico (deLeon and Hernandez-Quezada
2001). These studies investigate the dynamics surrounding the termination of specific public
programs and their findings generally support deLeon’s three-prong theory of policy termination;
the theory asserts that the major factors influencing termination decisions are fiscal stress,
program inefficiency, and political ideology, with political ideology being the most important
factor (deLeon 1983). This general dynamic received further support from a small number of
more recent empirical studies (Graddy and Ye 2008, Krause et al. 2016, Lamothe and Lamothe
2012). With regard to ICLEI membership, Krause et al. (2016) find that communities with
supportive political ideologies and those that had an effective programmatic experience were less
likely to withdraw. Cities’ financial health played a lesser role. Despite an increasing number of
studies on what drives policy termination, what happens to public objectives and actions after an
enabling policy is terminated is not well understood. Considering policy theory in the context of
ICLEI withdrawal provides this opportunity.
deLeon’s (1978) hierarchy of government thesis provides a link between policy
termination and the withdrawal from voluntary environmental organizations. Policy terminations
are not always easy to identify because there are several different layers of governmental activity
in which termination can take place, and a decision to end efforts in one layer may not
correspond to their end in others. deLeon proposed that governmental activities fall into four
categories: functions, organizations, policies and programs. Government functions correspond to
broad public services or responsibilities that encompass a number of agencies and/or policies that
serve related aims. Government organizations comprise the groups of people officially
designated to serve a specific public need. Policies are generalized strategies to address issues or
problems, and programs consist of tools employed to achieve specific policy or organizational
goals. Functions, organizations, policies and programs may be best viewed as points along a
spectrum of scope of responsibility rather than categories (Greenwood 1997). Government
functions, at one end of the spectrum, have the broadest scope and most general aims; at the
opposite end are programs, which are the narrowest and most specific.
A loose connection between program termination and the durability of the policy actions
is also made evident in the literature on policy cycles. As formulated by Harold Lasswell (1948),
the central idea was the interconnectedness among various policy processes, not that they
occurred in discrete stages. Viewed as an endogenous process, policy justifications,
administrative design, and specific content of policy at any moment in time are not independent
of prior actions. Termination can occur at any point on this continuum, which poses challenges
to impact evaluation. Termination at lower levels may result in responsibilities being shifted to
higher ones (deLeon 1978), with governmental activities being changed or reassigned rather than
eliminated. Organizations may be terminated, but functions remain. Programs may be
abandoned, but policies continue. Such dynamics may represent successions rather than real
terminations. deLeon’s categorization of governmental activities is relevant to the current
investigation of the impact of ICLEI termination since withdrawal from ICLEI indicates the
termination of a local environmental program. This termination, which occurs at deLeon’s lowest
activity level, may cause relevant sustainability responsibilities to shift higher. Therefore, we are
interested in examining whether sustainability-related efforts have continued despite this
programmatic ending. Specifically, we separately investigate whether cities’ policy and
administrative commitment to sustainability is affected by the termination of ICLEI.
Hypotheses about the effect of ICLEI termination on local sustainability
As discussed above, local governments adopted ICLEI as a way of making a substantive
commitment to local sustainability (Sharp et al. 2011). External political and financial pressures
and opportunities in the late 2000’s – including rapid growth of local property tax base and the
availability of intergovernmental funds – intersected with the mission and sustainability
procedures embedded in ICLEI and opened a policy window (Kingdon 1984) that was appealing
to a large number of local governments. ICLEI’s five-step process and the professional and
technical support it provided to member cities to assist with implementation turned ICLEI into
the most substantive coalition for municipal sustainability in the U.S. and its participation into a
meaningful indicator of local efforts (Krause 2012). By 2010, however, the political and
economic currents again shifted, this time in a direction that facilitated the formation of pro-
termination coalitions, which advance ideas of limited government at all levels and oppose the
inclusion of sustainability as a local government function. The anti-sustainability movement
strategically focused on ICLEI as its termination target, which was politically salient because of
its historic connections with the United Nations (Krause 2014).
All of the cities considered in our analysis, at one point, made the decision to join ICLEI
and adopt its Cities for Climate Protection program. They joined for different reasons, did so
with differing levels of initial enthusiasm, and engaged in different amounts of follow-through.
Some made strong administrative commitments, hired dedicated sustainability staff, and
allocated money to sustainability as a budget line whereas others did not (Hawkins et al, 2016).
Some cities implemented a wide variety of government and community-oriented sustainability
actions, while others actions had a more limited scope or were targeted to achieve energy
efficiency cost savings for the government (Bae and Feiock 2013). Upon terminating ICLEI
membership, cities also were likely to engage in different degrees of policy ‘undoing’. However,
little is systematically known about this and no statement can be made about the ‘average
expected effect’ of ICLEI termination on cities’ sustainability actions.
As previously described, the extant literature on both voluntary environmental
organizations and policy termination provides weak guidance regarding the likely effect of
withdrawal, beyond the observation that – because of the possibility of succession – it does not
necessarily indicate the end of all actions related to the larger government function.
Governmental actions supporting a specific goal can be categorized as an administrative
commitment or a policy commitment. Administrative commitment captures the degree of
institutional prioritization and has been characterized by the amount of resources, both human
and financial, designated to support a specific objective or policy aim (Hawkins et al. 2016;
Terman et al. 2016). Policy commitment, on the other hand, is conceived as a set of specific
actions or programs implemented to achieve an objective. Withdrawal from ICLEI may have
differential effects on administrative and policy commitments and keeping them separate
increases the precision of impact evaluations. We reflect these considerations in the hypotheses
of the effects that ending participation in ICLEI has on cities’ climate actions.
H1a: Cities’ withdrawal from ICLEI does not affect administrative levels of commitment
H1b: Cities’ withdrawal from ICLEI results in reduced administrative commitment to
H2a: Cities’ withdrawal from ICLEI does not affect levels of policy commitment to
H2b: Cities’ withdrawal from ICLEI results in reduced policy commitment to local
Administrative commitment plays an explicit supporting role in facilitating the
implementation of sustainability policies, and thus may be susceptible to changes in VEP
membership (Hawkins et al. 2016). Although policy actions may be embedded in city operations,
become habitual, and remain operating through inertia despite programmatic changes,
administrative staff and budget allocations are distinct, discrete resource decisions that may be
more closely tied to programmatic membership decisions.
H3: Cities’ withdrawal from ICLEI produces a larger impact on administrative
commitment than on policy commitment.
Data and methods
In order to assess the effect that terminating participation in ICLEI had on local governments’
energy and climate protection initiatives, we selected the approximately 565 U.S. cities that had
joined the organization by 2010, its year of peak membership, as the study sample. Data on these
cities’ sustainability actions were collected via two waves of surveys, the first of which was
administered in 2010 and early 2011 and the second in 2014. A total of 231 cities responded to
both survey efforts, for a total response rate of 40.9%.
The 2010/2011 survey data comes from the Integrated City Sustainability Database
(ICSD), a comprehensive dataset of municipal government sustainability policies and actions
that harmonizes data gathered from seven independent collection efforts. All the surveys
comprising the ICSD were completed by city government officials knowledgeable about their
sustainability efforts and were administered via the internet, often with hard copies mailed as
follow-up to non-respondents. Approximately 90% of U.S. cities with populations over 50,000
are represented in the ICSD, along with over 2,000 smaller cities. Specifics of the ICSD
components and its construction process are described in Feiock et al. (2014).
The 2014 survey was administered by Richard Feiock at Florida State University to all
cities with populations over 50,000 as well as to any smaller city that was an ICLEI member in
2010. Like the surveys in the ICSD, it was administered first via the internet with a mailed
follow-up and was completed by city officials knowledgeable about local sustainability efforts.
To enable comparison between time periods, the 2014 survey instrument was designed to match
the questions in the ICSD to the greatest extent possible.
Because of the high response rate in the ICSD, most of the ICLEI member cities missing
from the empirical analysis are those that did not respond to the 2014 survey. The cities used in
this empirical analysis, e.g. those for which data are available at two time periods, are similar to
the total population of ICLEI member cities on key demographic characteristics. They also show
similar rates in terminating ICLEI membership (See Table 1).
Table 1 here
We utilize a difference-in-differences (DiD) analysis to estimate the average treatment effect of
ICLEI termination as a policy intervention and empirically assess the impact that ending
membership has on the continuation of cities’ sustainability-related activities. The DiD method
requires data from two groups in two or more time periods, and is used widely in evaluation
studies (Card and Krueger 1994, Keele et al. 2013, Bertrand et al. 2004). The observations in the
first (control) group are never exposed to treatment whereas those in the second group are
exposed to the treatment only in the second time period. The change in the dependent variable
across the two time periods is calculated separately for each group and the average gain/loss in
the control group is subtracted from the average gain/loss in the treatment group. This approach
controls for potential bias caused by systematic differences between the treatment and control
groups as well as for trend effects.
Mathematically, it is expressed as: Yit= β0 + β1Tit + β2Di +β3Tit×Di + εit, where Yit is the
outcome variable; Tit= 1 indicates the post-treatment period, and Di= 1 indicates observations in
the treatment group. As a result, Tit× Di=1 represents treated cities (cities that terminated their
ICLEI membership) in the post-treatment period. β3 is the estimate of the DiD treatment effect. εit
is the error term.
DiD models are widely used to estimate the causal effect of policy interventions on
outcomes. Empirically, the focus is on the significance of the coefficient β3. Its sign and
statistical significance indicate the presence of a positive or negative treatment effect. If β3 is not
statistically significant, then there is not sufficient evidence of a treatment effect. In the current
analysis, a statistically significant and negative β3 would support the hypothesis that ICLEI
termination has a significant impact on the continuation of local sustainability commitments. As
described above, extant theory does not provide clear guidance as to whether ICLEI termination
as a VEP withdrawal will produce significant negative impact on local sustainability actions.
Dependent variables and policy indices
The dependent variables operationalize cities’ administrative and policy commitment to
sustainability. Two separate dichotomous dependent variables, the presence of dedicated staff
tasked with administering sustainability actions (STAFF) and the allocation of funds in the city
budget to support local sustainability (BUDGET), operationalize administrative commitment.
Both STAFF and BUDGET are observed in the 2010/2011 and 2014 time periods, enabling
administrative commitment to sustainability to be tracked over time. Descriptive statistics show
that 59% of cities have staff members dedicated to work on sustainability issues in 2014, a slight
increase compared to 55% in 2010. Similarly, the percent of cities that had adopted a budget
explicitly to fund sustainability programs increased from approximately 36% in 2010 to 40% in
To measure policy commitment, we develop an additive index indicating the local
implementation status of an array of eleven policy actions that promote different aspects of
energy and climate sustainability. A city receives a score of ‘1’ for each action it is currently
engaged in. If it is not undertaking that action, a ‘0’ is received. We sum these scores to create
an index representing cities’ policy commitment to local sustainability, with values ranging from
‘0’ to ‘11’. Table 2 lists the eleven actions in the index and shows the percentage of cities that
had active policies in place in 2010 and 2014, respectively. The actions in the index have a clear
energy orientation and do not capture the full broad concept of sustainability. However, they are
consistent with ICLEI’s focus on emissions reductions and may experience the greatest impact
from the termination of ICLEI membership.
Table 2 here
All cities included in the empirical model were members of ICLEI during 2010, the
organization’s peak membership year. By 2012, over 20% of these cities had ended their
participation. The treatment variable is the termination of ICLEI membership. Although this
conceptualization is the reverse of most DiD studies, which evaluate the addition of a new
program or policy as the treatment, it operates on the same principle. The treatment variable is
dichotomous, and cities receive a value of ‘1’ if they withdrew from ICLEI prior to 2013 and a
value of ‘0’ if they renewed their annual membership beyond that point.
A set of demographic and institutional characteristics is included in this analysis as control
variables. Form of government, i.e. whether a city has a council-manager or mayor-council
government structure, has been shown to influence local sustainability efforts (Bae and Feiock
2013, Daley et al. 2013) and is included to capture the influence that local political institutions
may have on their trends over time. The number of ICLEI milestones that each municipality has
achieved is used to control for the program’s effectiveness in a city. Demographic variables –
total population, the percentage of white population in the city, median household income, and
the unemployment rate – are also included in the models. Table 3 presents variable sources and
Table 3 here
In Table 2, the implementation rates associated with the administrative commitment dependent
variables and the components of the policy commitment dependent variable index, suggest that
the cities in the sample display a somewhat greater commitment to sustainability in 2014 than in
2010. The percent of cities with staff and/or budgets dedicated to sustainability increased by
approximately 4% in this time period. The mean policy index score also increased over time with
cities reporting higher rates of implementation for most, but not all, of the included sustainability
actions. Notably, the actions focused on city government operations increased consistently and
significantly between 2010 and 2014, but those targeting at the community at large either
stagnated or decreased. The one major exception to this trend is local support for the installation
of electric vehicle charging stations, which increased dramatically over this time period, likely
following the acceleration in promotional efforts by the federal government and vehicle
According to these descriptive measures, cities have, on average, increased the number of
sustainability efforts that they are actively engaged in during this time period. The relevant
question regarding the ‘treatment effect’ of withdrawing from ICLEI is: would the increase have
been larger if all cities had stayed active members? Figure 2 provides some initial insight and for
the two relevant groups of cities – those that terminated ICLEI and those that did not – shows the
change in the percent of cities that were implementing each of the identified sustainability efforts
in 2010 and 2014. The results appear to be a mixed bag with terminating cities performing better
on seven of the actions and sustaining cities performing better on the remaining six. That said,
the only variable for which the difference between the terminating and sustaining cities is even
modestly statistically significant (α = 0.1) is the provision of alternative transportation systems.
Among cities that withdrew from ICLEI, 10% more cities offer alternative transportation
systems in 2014 compared to 2010, whereas the percentage decreased by 4.6 among sustaining
Figure 2 here
A second set of descriptive statistics offer another opportunity to informally assess the
likely impacts of ICLEI membership terminations. The 2014 survey asked all cities about their
climate planning activities and the degree to which they are keeping their efforts current. The
relevant questions focus on GHG inventories, the completion of which is the first ICLEI
milestone and which provides an important foundation for climate planning. Ideally, inventories
are monitored and updated regularly in order to measure emissions reduction progress. Of the
231 cities in the sample, 159 and 142 of them, respectively, have completed inventories for city
government operations and the community at large. Figures 3 and 4 show that cities that have
terminated their ICLEI memberships self-report as updating their GHG inventories less
frequently than sustaining cities. Thus, the descriptive statistics suggest that, although there does
not appear to be a consistent association between ICLEI termination and administrative or policy
actions, one may exist with this aspect of climate planning. It is important to note that descriptive
statistics and graphical correlations are unable to indicate any causal linkage between ICLEI
termination and the extent of local sustainability efforts being undertaken. A series of DiD
models are applied to investigate this causal question.
Figure 3 here
Figure 4 here
Table 4 presents the results of six difference-in-differences models. The first three
columns report the results of treatment-variable-only models, and the set of control variables are
included in the estimation of the last three models. We examine three different dependent
variables: the presence of a dedicated staff and budget for sustainability is used to indicate
administrative commitment, and the policy index indicates policy commitment. Because STAFF
and BUDGET are binary variables, we use separate logistic regressions to estimate the treatment
effects of ICLEI termination on these DVs. For the models with policy index as the DV, we
estimated an ordinary least square (OLS) regression.
Table 4 here
No statistically significant effect from ICLEI termination on administrative or policy
commitment to local sustainability is observed across any of the six model specifications
reported in Table 4. The statistically insignificant results are quite robust and provide consistent
evidence that terminating ICLEI does not significantly affect cities’ decisions regarding the
overall number of sustainability actions to pursue.
As indicated in Figure 2, the actions that focus on city government operations increased
between 2010 and 2014, while those that target the larger community either stagnated or
decreased. We therefore estimate two additional models to tease out the potentially different
impacts that terminating ICLEI has on community-oriented versus government-oriented actions.
In Model 7, the dependent variable is an index of six community-oriented policy actions, while
Model 8 uses an index of five government-oriented policy actions. The results are presented in
Table 5. The DiD treatment coefficient remains insignificant in both models, consistent with
other models presented above. Because California cities receive access to some of ICLEI’s
programmatic services without needing to be full member, we ran another set of models that
included a dummy variable for cities in California. The results are very similar to those reported
above, suggesting a robustness of the results.
Table 5 here
Discussions and conclusion
Here, we assess the impact that terminating an influential voluntary environmental organization
has on cities’ implementation of substantive sustainability actions. We pose the question: when
cities terminate their ICLEI memberships, are they back-peddling on sustainability commitments
or quietly continuing with them? Conventional understanding suggests that when governments
officially terminate a policy, the programs and activities central to that policy cease, although
policy succession is an alternative outcome (deLeon 1978, Krause et al. 2016). In the preceding
analysis, we examined pre-treatment and post-treatment data for 231 U.S. cities with ICLEI
membership. We find no evidence of any treatment effect with estimations of a series of
difference-in-differences (DiD) models. The findings empirically advance a succession-related
dynamic and an alternative perspective, which supports our argument that specific program
activities may be only weakly tied to the policies that justify them. This result directly challenges
the conventional wisdom.
Understanding why disconnects between policy termination and programmatic action,
like those observed in this study, occur directs our attention back to the politics of policy
adoption. The co-benefits of sustainability, including exclusive club goods like reputation,
directly link to the motivations for joining voluntary environmental programs like ICLEI in the
first place. Research on the local adoption of sustainability initiatives indicate that achieving co-
benefits often provides a greater motivation for municipal governments to take climate action
than does advancing climate protection, per se (Betsill and Bulkeley 2004, Portney 2004, Krause
2012, Kwon et al. 2014, Yi 2013).
Our findings suggest additional questions. Even though, on average, ICLEI termination
does not reduce climate action, are there specific situations in which it does? Again building
from the factors that motivate climate actions, it can be theorized that potential interaction of
termination and specific events such as turnover in the elected city leadership might lead to the
demise of both policy and actions. Future work might explore such relationships as a three-way
interaction of time, treatment, and context. Such efforts promise to enhance the understanding of
policy termination and provide practical guidance.
Furthermore, if the durability of specific policy commitments – in the face of the
abandonment of the programs or initiatives in which they are based and justified – is linked to
the political economy of specific policy instruments and their co-benefits, then scholars of local
government and environmental sustainability who focus on ICLEI membership and the adoption
of climate action plans may be ‘aiming too high’ and would be better served by focusing on
specific policy actions. This suggests that the interesting dynamics are at the level of policy
instruments rather than program adoption or termination. Particularly in hostile political
environments or in contexts where the reputational benefits of participating in a Voluntary
Environmental Program (VEP) diminish, governments can – and in this case do – continue to
proceed with substantive actions after abandoning the initial justifying initiative.
While we focus on assessing the impact that terminating membership in ICLEI has on
cities’ sustainability policy and administrative arrangements in this paper, future studies could
utilize a voluntary environmental program perspective to further explore why cities withdraw
from sustainability organizations in general. Particularly, studies could examine the idea of
‘brand value’ and assess what makes a local sustainability brand valuable to cities as well as
what costs they are willing accept to enter and remain in a particular sustainability club. Another
route for related research is to assess the impact of VEP competition. In recent years the number
of VEPs focusing on municipal sustainability has expanded to include such organizations as the
Urban Sustainability Directors Network, C40 Cities, Mexico City Pact, and 100 Resilient Cities.
Their presence may decrease the value of the exclusive information and networking
opportunities offered by ICLEI. They may also enable sustainability-minded cities to tailor their
memberships to match their individual needs and priorities. Additionally, the longitudinal spill-
over effect of the city’s policy actions from its past into the future calls for new research into the
intriguing mechanism of internal policy spill-overs and diffusions.
We acknowledge the valuable comments from the Editor Anthony Zito and two anonymous reviewers.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
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Table 1. Comparison of cities in the analysis to 2010 ICLEI member cities (USA)
ICLEI Member cities as of
ICLEI Member cities that
responded to both 2010/2011
and 2014 surveys (n=231)
Median household income
Percent with bachelors +
Percent Republican voters
Percent dropped ICLEI
Table 2. Actions contained in the policy commitment dependent variable index and the percent
of US cities with ‘currently active’ efforts in each time period
Policies address green procurement in city government operations
Policies promote renewable energy projects/investment by city
City utilizes energy efficiency systems (e.g. heating/cooling) in
Energy efficiency standards or LEED certification requirements in
place for construction of new government buildings
Energy efficiency standards in place for retrofits of existing
Alternatively fueled vehicles being added to city fleet
Policies promote renewable energy projects/investment in the
Policies encourage energy efficient new construction and/or
retrofits in the community
Policies subsidize/encourage installation of electric vehicle
Alternative transportation system provided in community
City provides information about energy efficiency to residents
Mean policy index score
Table 3. Description and source of variables
A dichotomous variable coded ‘1’ for cities with sustainability staff
and ‘0’ otherwise.
Source: ICSD(Feiock et al.2014)
A dichotomous variable coded ‘1’ for cities with sustainability
budget and ‘0’ otherwise.
Source: ICSD(Feiock et al.2014)
An index score ranging from ‘0’ to ‘11’, representing the number of
effective sustainability policy tools.
Source: ICSD(Feiock et al.2014)
A dichotomous variable coded ‘1’ for cities that have terminated
their membership in ICLEI CCP and ‘0’ for those that have
continued their membership.
Source: ICLEI USA
The 2011 median income of each city’s residents in $10,000s.
Source: American Community Survey, 2011, 5 yr estimate
The log of each city’s 2010 population in 1000s. Source: US Census
2010; Geolytics 2014
A dichotomous variable coded ‘1’ for cities with council-manager
form of government and ‘0’ for cities with mayor-council form of
Percent of white population. Source: US Census 2010; Geolytics
The percent of population that are unemployed. Source: US Census
2010; Geolytics 2014
The number of ICLEI milestones, out of a possible 5, that each city
has achieved in their climate protection planning. Source: ICLEI
Table 4. Impact of the ICLEI termination on sustainability activities in the US, 2011-2014
Treatment group ×
*p<0.10; **p<0.05; ***p<0.01(two-tailed), Robust standard errors in parentheses
Table 5. The effect of ICLEI termination on community vs. government policy actions in the US
DV: Community Actions
DV: Government Actions
Post treatment period
Treatment group × Post
***p<0.01(two-tailed); Robust standard errors in parentheses
Figure 1. The Number of Municipal members of ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection Program in the
USA (1993 to 2012)*
Note: * This figure represents all municipalities that were members of ICLEI, including counties and
townships which are excluded from the current analysis.
Figure 2. Change in Frequency of Actions taken between 2010 and 2014 in Sustaining and Terminating
ICLEI cities in the USA
Figure 3. Frequency of Updates of GHG Inventory for City Government Operations in the USA
Figure 4. Frequency of updates of Community GHG Inventory in the USA