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While nations blow hot air, it’s cities that are the real sustainability heros

Suppose they held a united nations conference on sustainable development and nobody came?

As much as leaders of global citizens groups have tried to rally world opinion around the recent Rio+20 conference, June 20-22, with a petition called The World We Don’t Want (a cute slam at The World We Want of the official declaration), it’s time to fess up that the most anyone could have hoped for was The Words We Want. But why get involved in a war of words any more than a war with guns?

I’ve been at these UN meets and understand the frustration of watching all the hope and energy, knowing all along that there’s no mechanism for the enforcement of anything that’s decided. If precedent means anything, Rio’s 46-page compromise document and supposed $513 billion in commitments are likely to come to very little, too.

But the person who actually named the problem of world-class irrelevance during and after the flash in the pan at Rio is Michael Bloomberg. He’s the multi-millionaire philanthropist, mayor of New York and head of C40, a seven-year-old group of 59 of the world’s very large cities (confirming the wisdom of avoiding the use of numbers in names of new orgs).

After a day meeting with other mayors in Rio, Bloomberg threw down the gauntlet at the conference, claiming the actions of C40 provide “more evidence that cities have been and will continue to lead the way.” National governments can argue among themselves, he said, but C40 cities are well on the way to implementing 4,700 new projects that will eliminate 248 million tonnes of global warming gases by 2020.

C40, which we know here because former mayor David Miller was its previous chair, is the organization to watch, and the reason is that cities and nation states have very different ways of calculating cost-benefit ratios.

Though cities are responsible for about 70 per cent of global warming emissions, it’s a rare city that owns, regulates or reaps taxes, jobs or other benefits from oil, gas or coal reserves or many of the companies that spin off these resources.

As often as not, high emissions in cities are the result of subsidies and other practices embedded at the national level. Resource and allied companies (pesticide and fertilizer companies, for example) hold sway at the national, not city, level.

So when meetings of nations take place, the views of resource corporations and generally overrepresented rural voters figure larger than at meetings where cities work on improving the lot of their citizens. Cities face higher risks from global warming than rural areas, which is why they need to develop their own voice and capabilities. Global organizations that only represent national governments are unrepresentative of the experiences, needs and interests of the world’s population.

The shift to C40-style organizing at the international level is also supremely practical, for the simple reason that cities, not nation states, have the authority, capacity, tools and skills to deal on the ground with transportation, waste and building issues that give rise to excessive use of fossil fuels. Cities own lots of buildings, set the building codes for others, pick up garbage, license cabs, operate traffic lights and street lights, manage water utilities, oversee schools, draft official plans that can direct fuel and smog reduction, and so on. C40 estimates that mayors have direct control over 75 per cent of urban emissions sources.

Since no one has yet found the nerve to out UN conferences and say the diplomats there have no clothes, officials at these meets, along with hapless environmentalists who take the gatherings seriously, still pretend they can actually do something. But the best thing nations can do is get out of the way and stop subsidizing polluting fuels, auto industries and the like. Less is more.

Another reason groups like C40 are omens of the future has to do with organizational style. Cities have no formal authority to meet and proclaim on matters of world import. So they form voluntary networks to share information, as well as voluntary partnerships to implement programs. This is a pretty tried and true way of getting things done, and evidently more effective than analysis-paralysis, the specialty of nation states that prefer control over content and grandstanding over accomplishment.

Funding from C40 comes largely from private foundations, most notably the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Climate Initiative. Partnerships happen on the fly, as need arises; as yea-sayers rather than nay-sayers, networks can travel light. This strategy might be called, if the term hadn’t been poisoned, a coalition of the willing.

In collaboration with C40, for instance, Bogotá, Colombia, launched a pilot project to spur the use of electric taxis, and L.A. set up a program to help owners of property make their buildings more energy-efficient – just two of many initiatives. The org is now codifying environmental best practices to share.

The record of many C40 cities (Toronto is an exception) is awe-inspiring. London shows off its downtown Elephant and Castle project, the biggest park addition to the city in 70 years, which will also house 2,800 families and employ 5,000 people. New York shows off its biggest park expansion since the 1930s and also features 1 billion square feet of rooftop that’s being greened, painted white or converted to solar panels. Toronto is named as a member, but never rates a mention. Maybe sometime there will be coverage of the plastic bag controversy.

For those who missed Rio and want to keep abreast of the hot new trend in international civics, the World Cities Summit meets in Singapore July 1 to 4.
(June 28-July 5, 2012 issue)

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