When the document that will probably be the outcome of the United Nations Conference for Sustainable Development, Rio+20, came out yesterday's afternoon, I was nowhere near the official meeting. Neither were dozens of journalists and photographers from international and national media, who were crammed to get a picture of New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes visiting one of the favelas under the Morar Carioca urbanization project.
Turning our backs to the global process and feeding our interest in what cities are doing may not have been entirely intentional, but it sure was symbolic.
Earlier that morning, the mayors participating in the C40 meeting Mayors Taking Action on Climate Change had been vocal in criticizing the UN talks that resulted in the before mentioned agreement. “My city has shrunk its footprint by 13% in the past five years, and we, in unison with other C40 cities, have policies, programs or projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 250 million tons by the end of this decade,” said Bloomberg. “That’s 250 megatons reductions that cities are already working to bring about. What a contrast with the international treaty process that can’t even seem to agree on reduction targets for the world’s nations, much less do something about them.”
“What we must do here in Rio is to use the cities progress to continue to prove the rest of the world that clean energy and energy efficiency are good economics,” added former president Bill Clinton claimed joining via teleconference from New York. And later in another talk, Paes excused the process saying it must not be easy to get 200 people to agree on every comma and period, but concluded: “As a mayor, I don’t want to get into a framework like that, it would take us too long to make decisions.”
The point was sound and clear, and one I agree with. But what’s interesting about the C40 initiative (a coalition founded in 2005 by 20 major cities which has grown to include 59 now) is not only the actions they’re taking and the opinions they’re voicing, but the dynamics they’re working with.
C40 works as a network to connect and share best practices, in a take or leave approach that allows each urban center to make their own model.
For example, in this meeting they launched a Solid Waste Network: a peer-to-peer learning tool that will assist local governments in reducing methane emissions coming from waste management. The goal is one, but each city can develop a program that is viable for them.
Clinton, whose foundation is a partner in the initiative, said that New Delhi and Lagos are taking steps to close landfills and develop new waste management facilities, while Rio de Janeiro is working on a project to divert organic matter from waste to generate organic fertilizer. The different approaches would not be possible if a document stated what all cities must do.
Despite the freedom for each to act individually, there is a shared commitment: as Bloomberg mentioned, the existing actions the group’s cities are taking are going to reduce annual greenhouse emissions by around 250 million tons by 2020 from 2010 levels (not an ambition baseline, but still), and they have the potential to reduce one gigaton (one billion tons) of emissions a year by 2030. This would be, according to their figures, like canceling out the equivalent to the yearly emissions of Mexico and Canada combined.
The pragmatic approach seems more appealing than a global process that is growing in disappointment each year. How much more interesting and encouraging Rio+20 would have been if countries would have gathered to share their best practices and listen to each other instead of spending days discussing where a comma goes? And if in 20 years we haven’t been able, as a whole, to reach goals we already agreed on, what’s the point of even more paper work?
If you’re thinking we need an agreement so that all countries commit, think again: an agreement is the starting point and countries can sign up or not (think Kioto Protocol and the US). And signing up or not depends on voters pressure, which, actually, is what it all comes down to and the reason cities are rushing to act: mayors have four years in duty (usually on a race to higher positions) and what they do and don’t do shows, making or breaking their act.
Bloomberg is a good speaker, and put it wisely: “Don’t think that parties have ideology, parties are about keeping their members elected. If the public changes their views, history shows that they have changed to keep their party in power.”