Postcard from Rio, Part 3

June 28, 2012

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 3 of a series of impressions from Rio.

by Jonn Braman, IEFS Core Advisor

As a public servant and environmentalist, one of the things that impressed me at Rio+20 was the number of Environment Ministers attending who took time to interact with the Major Working Groups.

Rio Centro exhibit, photo by Rick Smith

Brasil’s minister spoke at a couple of events I attended, highlighting her country’s achievements toward sustainability, which are many. I am not sure their shift in policy around the Amazon forests is being seen as positively by others as she described. But certainly their progress away from fossil fuels is impressive and if my nose’s impression of Rio’s air quality is accurate, even with this cold, vehicles burning cleaner fuels will be most welcome here.

Denmark’s Ida Auken spoke briefly about the successes and challenges in her country. Geothermal energy provides them with huge potential for green energy export, but comes with nature’s own air quality challenges for the planet, and in particular for those living on the smaller islands, while the much larger Greenland continues to “green” as the ice pack on it melts at an ever alarming rate. Recent measurements of CO2 levels at 400 ppm on Canada’s equally northern Ellesmere Island seem to indicate the permafrost melting feedback loop may have begun. I would very much liked to have heard more from her, but she cut her talk short to accommodate Ban Ki-Moon arrival at the session.

Of all the environment ministers I heard (and I didn’t get to all sessions) it was the Singapore Minister for Environment and Water Resources that resonated most for me. As a city nation responsible for 5 million citizens on a 30 km long island they, like many island nations, are good allegories for our only planet. They do not have the space for waste or contaminants and they have a very real water supply challenge with a fully built environment. Unlike our planet, they do have neighbors to trade with and they are supporting their commerce, in part, with “green economy” such as export of their desalination technology. Tianjin, a Sino-Singapore Eco-city development is another example. While neither Singapore, nor Tianjin are ‘perfect’ EcoCities in the visionary sense, they are huge steps forward in the recognition of the finite capacity of our planet and our species essential role to ‘get it right’. We can only hope all our countries ‘get it’ and soon!

Petroleo e morte bici e vida. “Oil is death, bicycle is life.” Photo by Rick Smith.


Informal-Informal in New York

March 24, 2012

This week a small but poised Ecocity Builders delegation including Kirstin Miller, Naomi Grunditz and myself got to spend time at UN Headquarters in New York to witness the first round of ‘Informal-Informal’ negotiations on the Zero Draft of the Outcome Document of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20.

As the issue of sustainable development, or how all humans can prosper without destroying the planet we live and depend on, is global, far-reaching and multidimensional in nature, these negotiations do not only involve governments and diplomats…

Delegates during the negotiations, Photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

but active participation of all sectors of society and all types of people – consumers, workers, business persons, farmers, students, teachers, researchers, activists, indigenous communities, and other communities of interest, also known as major groups.

Farmers representative in the plenary, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

As such, we were invited to join the discussion on how to solve these complex problems, not only with a keen eye toward the role cities will play in the final outcome document, but also to network and exchange ideas with other stakeholders on how to ultimately translate all the talk into specific action on the ground.

We were pretty excited to see the paragraph ascribed to cities in the zero draft of the document, which is the agreed upon starting point of the negotiations:

We commit to promote an integrated and holistic approach to planning and building sustainable cities through support to local authorities, efficient transportation and communication networks, greener buildings and an efficient human settlements and service delivery system, improved air and water quality, reduced waste, improved disaster preparedness and response and increased climate resilience.

Of course, by the time the UNCSD delegates had gone through their first reading of Section V (Framework for Action and Follow-up), a whole new picture appeared. Here just a small sample from the third day of informal consultations, as excerpted from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin:

On cities, CANADA supported the US proposal on sustainable transportation. NEW ZEALAND recommended maintaining resilient ecosystem services. The REPUBLIC OF KOREA introduced its proposal on including greener buildings in city planning. The EU reserved on Japan’s proposal to establish a platform to promote sustainable cities. Proposals for a new title included “Human Settlement, Sustainable Cities, Rural Development and Housing” (G-77/CHINA) and “Cities and metropolitan regions and opposed to extend it to rural development” (EU). The US suggested replacing “low carbon cities” with “sustainable cities” or “low emission cities.” The G-77/CHINA identified slum prevention and upgrading as key elements.

Delegates consulting on the text, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

It’s a little bit like a global sausage-making town hall, and actually quite amazing how courteous, efficient and fast-moving this process is, considering that it literally involves the entire world.

While the process is quite fascinating and I enjoyed my time sitting in the plenary, the real action for us happened in our major group meetings, side events, and casual meetings in the UN cafeteria, aka the Viennese Cafe. It’s in those meetings where NGOs and civic groups can get a chance to talk to some of the delegates and give their input on what should be included in the draft.

John Matuszak, US, meets with NGOs, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

There’s obviously no guarantee that any of it will be included, or if it does, it may very well get deleted again at a later point in the negotiations, but just this morning at our daily major groups briefing, Nikhil Seth, Director for Sustainable Development at the UN, reiterated that civil participation is strongly encouraged and asked us to not get frustrated by the sometimes very arduous process. He likened it to a wave that kind of sucks you in and spits you back out, but ultimately will move us all forward.

There’s definitely a palpable excitement about this new commitment by the UN to include stakeholders from all walks of life and society. While most of the input may not make it into the final document, there’s no doubt that people at the highest levels are willing to listen to a broad range of ideas and let their thinking be inspired by the experiences and lessons from the ground.

For example, for us it was pretty cool to be invited, along with a group of other interested NGOs, to Swedish ambassador Staffan Tillander’s office, to discuss a possible ‘friends of the city’ network that could pool our knowledge and broaden our scope to make the voice of sustainable cities stronger.

Naomi, who is fluent in Swedish, had a chance for a photo-op with the ambassador.

This is really just the beginning of a non-stop process that will go on throughout the coming weeks, into June, and really, beyond the conference. Whatever language ends up in the final document, the real challenge will be to translate the words, intentions and treaties into action. I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks about some really exciting projects Ecocity Builders is working on for Rio and beyond, but for now, as I’m heading out of the laboratory of UN Headquarters into the field of the New York Highline, I’ll leave you with a photo of Kirstin and me, with hopeful hearts for big deeds.


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