Postcard from Rio, Part 1

This month, a team of Ecocity Builders associates went to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to give talks, listen, collaborate with local communities, and promote the International Ecocity Framework and Standards initiative. This is part 1 of a series of impressions from Rio.

by Rick Smith, IEFS Core Advisor

Rick Smith’s view of Rio

What do Ecocity Builders, Jeff Sachs, and Walmart have in common? They each came to Rio+20 to promote the need to measure, set standards and goals for sustainable development.

In 2008 in San Francisco at the Ecocity Summit, attendees urged Ecocity Builders to launch a program to create an Ecocity labeling system for cities. After all, anyone could claim that they were an Ecocity and not have to justify the label. Well meaning developers build green buildings in locations that have a bioregion that cannot support a major city. Until that point, Ecocity Builders focused on design, advocacy and demonstration projects. After almost three years of incubation with a set of core advisors, the International Ecocity Framework and Standards was launched at the 2011 Montreal Ecocity Summit. This new framework proposed 15 Ecocity Conditions that include the Bio-physical, Socio-Cultural and Ecological Imperatives. Ecocity Builders has partnered with the British Columbia Institute for Technology (BCIT), the William and Helen Mazer Foundation, Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLIE) and China to move the IEFS forward. The next step will be joining Early Partner Cities to crowdsource and Beta test the standards.

Kirstin Miller at Rio Dialogues

The excitement of the IEFS launch helped bring Ecocity Builders into the Major Groups process for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, otherwise known as Rio+20. For 10 months, Executive Director Kirstin Miller flew back and forth to New York to help negotiate the zero draft of the cities portion of the outcome document. While this conference was not set up to have a treaty as an outcome, the consensus document for the conference was anticipated to be a firm global policy framework to encourage voluntary commitments among member states and civil society. As it turned out, the section on cities was rather uncontroversial in the ideological and vested quagmire of population planning, technology transfer, technology transfer, armed conflict, and carbon emissions. The Vatican will not allow a statement that remotely resembles a call for contraception. Wealthy countries do not want a statement that remotely resembles an obligation to increase development assistance or weaken intellectual property rights. Few nations wanted to give up war or burning.

Demonstration at the People’s Summit. Photo by Rick Smith

Although the cities section placed an emphasis on cities as a solution to sustainability, the document did not contain any language to encourage an IEFS. However, the Government of Brazil provided one bright opportunity unprecedented in United Nations conferences. They created a social media site for conference participation and invited the world to join. Global citizens were asked to crowdsource ideas and vote on the best ones. Ecocity Builders convened a meeting with other city NGOs and came up with a proposal to promote global standards of sustainability for cities. Two weeks before the conference, this proposal was selected by an expert panel to be in the top ten that went to the world for a vote. When we arrived in Rio, the Government of Brazil schedules a panel discussion for these recommendations on Monday, June 18th. The world would pick one of the top ten by an internet vote, the attendees of the conference would pick one and the expert panel on cites would come up with a third recommendations. For about a week, we had no idea if our proposal would go forward or exactly how this would work. We even had to apply for special tickets to the Dialogue Days events that were to occur between the Preparatory Conference and the Main Summit.

Exhibit at Rio Centro. Photo by Rick Smith

When the winner was announced on Saturday, June 16th, we were devastated. Our proposal came in 6th and the winner was to use waste as a source of energy. While biomass has a role on a small scale, it is not always the most efficient use of resources because some biomass has embedded energy that can be recycled for other purposes. However, when we saw that the panel had our old friends Janice Perlman, Jaimie Lehner and David Cadman we saw some hope that they would be able to present our idea to the world. We arrived at Dialogue Days with a prepared question for the panelists. The panelists had a similar reaction to the world vote on solid waste for energy. Indeed, informal waste pickers staged a bit of a protest in the audience when it was time for questions and answers. Millions of people–mostly women in the world make a living in recycling industries. If we simply burned our trash, it would but these families out of business. Mayor Lehner made a good pitch for standards as did Mr. Oded Grajew, President Emeritus of the Ethos Institute. However, when it came time for the Sustainability Director of one of those “self-proclaimed” ecocities to speak, she said, “We do not need sustainability standards for cities because every city is different. If you want to see a sustainable city, come to ours.” An architect on the panel chimed in to say that you know a sustainable city when you see it.

Our proposal was doomed. With 76% of the vote, the audience voted for “Plan in advance for sustainability and quality of life in cities.” While it was not our proposal, it was not anything to disagree with. Our proposal sunk with only 15% of the vote. However, when the panel deliberated, Janice Perlman said, “You know, we are all of one mind here at the table, let’s integrate some of the comments.” The moderator proposed this text and it was adopted by the panel:

Each head of state should identify a sustainable city to develop a network for knowledge sharing and innovation. Governments should channel resources to develop people-centered sustainable cities with timed and measurable goals, in such way that empowers local communities, promotes equality and accountability.

This recommendation, in a nutshell is the IEFS and engagement with Early Partner Cites, or something very much like it.

Measuring sustainability was very much a theme in other parts of the conference. Business will further advance the Global Reporting Initiative. The consensus document embraced the concept of the Sustainable Development Goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. Kirstin Miller observed the tail end of the SDG negotiations. She observed that the diplomats scratched their heads and didn’t know what to say and called out for the experts to guide them on developing SDGs. We will do just that and we are not alone. ISO will also be engaging with sustainability measures for cites. And UN Advisor Jeff Sachs remarked at a panel for youth, “The Sustainable Development Goals will work because they are not a treaty. The three treaties from Rio 92 were excellent and never implemented but created a cottage industry for lawyers. The MDGs work because no country wants to be seen as being worse off than others.” Ecocity Builders will be moving forward with the IEFS to encourage each city to race to stay within the earth’s carrying capacity.

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