As Rio+20 takes shape (officially, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, follow-up to the historic UN 1992 "Earth Summit," held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), the issue of sustainable cities appears to be taking center stage in planning for the June 2012 event dedicated to marshalling the global Green Economy.
"Cities provide a great framework to galvanize public opinion and citizen participation," said Jared Blumenfeld, Administrator of Region 9 of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Cities also have a lot in common: New York and Beijing have more in common in terms of challenges they face than do the US and China."
On the road to Rio, the UN's "Shanghai Manual for Sustainable Cities" will be released by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs on Nov. 7 as a playbook for mayors of global cities so they can deploy triple bottom line strategies (I co-authored the manual with the UN). Blumenfeld, who spoke last week at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, said that the US Department of State and EPA are preparing by next week a Rio+20 submittal that is "cities focused." (Previously, the United States and Brazil recently announced the US-Brazil Joint Venture on Urban Sustainability.) Meanwhile, non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders has begun high-level discussions with the UN and NGOs ICLEI and C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, on potential Rio+20 standards for ecocities including the International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS).
Out of the 1992 Earth Summit, with 110 heads of state and thousands of non-governmental leaders, emerged pivotal treaties and frameworks for decades to come, including the Kyoto Protocol and Agenda 21. Other products of the first Earth Summit include the Global Environmental Facility at the World Bank, and national sustainability agendas in 86 countries based off Agenda 21, according to Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Scherr, who also spoke with the EPA's Blumenfeld, cited UN
Secretary General Ban Ki-
moon's declaration that, "We are running out of time," in reference to global environmental species and habitat destruction, combined with human-caused climate change. Scherr pointed out that in 1950 there were only 50,000 cars on earth--soon there will be 1 billion. Illustrating the trend toward species extinction and habitat loss, he noted that one-third fewer animals inhabit the planet than there were only 40 years ago.
Such unchecked developments combined with fast-growing
global urban populations--not to mention increasing difficulty in forging
successful national-level sustainability agreements--make cities the best means
of addressing global sustainability, Blumenfeld said.
Blumenfeld, the former director of San Francisco's Department of Environment, said that the most effective strategies for Rio+20 may rest upon enabling local actions such as significantly increased city recycling goals (including zero waste) and banning plastic bags. "In ten days you can get the word out in cities and you can make a difference," he said, "which is very different than getting people to focus on international agreements."
Scherr implored those in their twenties or younger to take an interest in the UN Rio+20 proceedings and participate in whatever way possible, since it will be so vital to shaping a planet's future that will be decidedly urban (75% by 2050): "It shouldn't be called Rio+20. It should be called Rio for Twenty Somethings."
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, and co-author of the forthcoming United Nations Shanghai Manual on global sustainable city planning and management.