Shaping the Future We Want; Global Commitments to Catalyze Change

We don’t need another plan of action or more treaties; what we need are people that will begin to implement the commitments and meet the goals that have already been created and established,” explains Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), about the new thinking that drove this year’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The June conference brought together international heads of state, business leaders, nonprofits and activists to prioritize and strategize sustainable development.

Unlike the United Nations’ annual climate change conferences, which led to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997—a legally binding treaty that set targets for greenhouse gas emissions the United States refused to sign—the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is held once every 20 years. The theme of Rio+20 was simple and direct: The Future We Want.

Moving away from political posturing and endless negotiating, the meet-up asked businesses, governments and charities to publicly declare their specific commitments and solicited the public’s ideas for realizing sustainability, all aligned with the priorities and opportunities of the 21st century. “With growing populations depleting resources, how do we keep increasing and ensuring prosperity while we are already using more than we have?” queries U.N. spokeswoman Pragati Pascale. “It’s a conundrum.”

Sustainable development, as defined by the U.N., includes fighting poverty, social inclusion (including advancing the status of women) and protecting the environment. Building a sustainable future for the planet, say those involved, means addressing all three simultaneously. It demands the kind of real, immediate action so evident at Rio+20.

Real Results

By the end of the Rio conference, more than 700 voluntarily secured commitments, valued at more than half a trillion dollars, were earmarked to address everything from protecting forests and reducing ocean pollution to building rapid transit bus systems and increasing the number of women entrepreneurs in the green economy. The NRDC launched CloudOfCommitments.org to track and publicize new pledges and make them easily searchable by region or category.

Some commitments are breathtaking in scope:

n International development banks have pledged $175 billion to boost sustainable transportation in developing countries;

n Bank of America promised $50 billion over 10 years to finance energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and energy access;

n The World Bank committed $16 billion to boost clean energy, access to electricity and cookstoves in developing nations;

n The New Partnership for Africa’s Development promised to achieve energy access for at least 60 percent of Africa’s population by 2040;

n The European Bank offered $8 billion by 2015 to support energy efficiency projects in Eastern Europe and Central Asia;

n Microsoft pledged to be carbon neutral across all its operations by the end of 2013;

n The United States together with the Consumer Goods Forum (which represents more than 600 retail and manufacturing companies) committed to achieve zero net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020.

“The real action, the real energy, was the 21st-century aspect [of Rio+20],” advises Scherr. “I call it the ‘network world’, recognizing the number of players today. It’s not just national governments; it’s states and cities, corporations and philanthropists. In addition to the official meetings and negotiations, between 3,000 and 4,000 other gatherings were going on between business people, mayors, civil society organizations and others, presenting myriad opportunities to make specific commitments. We’re moving to a different dynamic.”

Sowing Seeds

The inclusive atmosphere is reflected in another new U.N.-sponsored international sharing website, FutureWeWant.org, featuring visions and videos relating to sustainability and solutions to dire environmental problems, such as turning global warming-inducing methane from China’s farms into a usable energy source; predicting periods of drought in Ethiopia to prevent humanitarian crises; and investing in solar power to bring electricity to 1.4 billion people around the world. More than 50 million people worldwide have submitted ideas for a more sustainable world, ranging from ways to increase public education to plans for stopping industrial pollution and better managing waste.

“The huge public engagement in the conference is exciting,” says Pascale, “because that’s really how progress will happen. People have to force their governments to take action.”

The NRDC dedicated website is part of a coordinated effort to hold governments, businesses and nonprofits accountable and inform the public. The new U.N. websites facilitate a thriving discussion of what sustainability means and how it can be put into practice. “We want to continue the overall campaign and build upon it,” says Pascale. “Whatever frustrations people have with businesses, nongovernment organizations (NGO) or governments, we need to harness that energy and keep that dialogue going to give people a voice in making sustainability happen.”

Results-Oriented Role Models

State-based examples of sustainable development in action speak to widespread needs in the United States. Here are examples of five models worth replicating.

PlaNYC: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement of PlaNYC, on Earth Day 2007, signaled an historic moment. The people’s vision of a cleaner, healthier New York City, one that could accommodate 9 million predicted residents by 2030, aims to be a model for urban sustainable development. Its original 127 initiatives leave few sustainability stones unturned, including cleaning up brownfields, building more playgrounds and parks, increasing public transportation and bike lanes, implementing aggressive recycling, enforcing green building standards and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Two-thirds of the initial goals have already been achieved; the latest update calls for 132 initiatives, including a new set of annual milestones.

Speaking at the Museum of the City of New York in 2009, Daniel Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor of economic development and rebuilding for the Bloomberg administration, called PlaNYC “one of the most sweeping, most comprehensive blueprints for New York ever undertaken.” Most critically, all of its stated commitments are achievable (see Tinyurl.com/PlaNYC-goals).

Evergreen Cooperative Initiative (ECI): Businesses and community groups in Cleveland, Ohio, determined that they needed to solve the problem of joblessness in low-income areas by creating living-wage jobs and then training eligible residents to fill them. They developed a new, cooperativebased economic model, based on green jobs that can inspire other cities with similar economic woes.

The ECI is a community undertaking in which anchor institutions like the Cleveland Foundation, University Hospitals and the municipal government leverage their purchasing power to help create green-focused, employee-owned local businesses, which to date include a green laundromat, the hydroponic greenhouse Green City Growers, and Ohio Cooperative Solar, which provides weatherization and installs and maintains solar panels. The solar cooperative will more than double Ohio’s solar generating capacity from 2011 levels by the end of 2012 (see EvergreenCooperatives.com).

CALGreen: Updated building codes may not generate much excitement until we consider that U.S. buildings account for a lion’s share of carbon dioxide emissions (39 percent), and consume 70 percent of the electricity we generate. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) reports, “If half of new commercial buildings were built to use 50 percent less energy, it would save over 6 million metric tons of CO2 annually for the life of the buildings—the equivalent of taking more than 1 million cars off the road every year.”

The California Green Building Standards Code (CALGreen), which took effect in January 2011, sets the highest green bar for new buildings in the country. It requires that new buildings achieve a 20 percent reduction in potable water use, divert 50 percent of their construction waste from landfills, use paints and materials with low volatile organic compound content and provide parking for clean-air vehicles. Multiple key stakeholders have been involved throughout the process, including the California Energy Commission and the Sierra Club.

“We really tried to bring together an entire spectrum of people and groups with different perspectives and expertise to build a consensus,” says David Walls, executive director of the California Building Standards Commission. “If we were going to put something in the code, we wanted to make sure it was right.” (See Tinyurl.com/CALGreen-Home.)

Renewable Portfolio Standard: Texas leads the country in electricity generated from wind power. One complex, in Roscoe, features 627 turbines on 100,000 acres that cost $1 billion to build. Much of the rapid growth of the state’s wind industry can be credited to Texas’ Renewable Portfolio Standard, legislation passed in 1999 that mandated construction of renewable energy, including solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, biomass and landfill gas, in addition to wind. It further mandated that utilities generate 2,000 megawatts of additional renewable energy by 2009, then 5,880 MW by 2015 and 10,000 MW by 2025. The 10-year goal was met in six years, and Texas has added many green jobs, increased tax revenues and provided security against blackouts, which is critical in the event of extreme heat or drought (see Tinyurl.com/TexasStandard).

Edison Innovation Green Growth Fund: Clean technology is booming despite the economic recession and attracting serious investment funds. According to a report by Clean Edge, Inc., venture capital investments in clean technologies increased 30 percent between 2010 and 2011, from $5.1 billion to $6.6 billion.

New Jersey entrepreneurs are upping their state’s potential in this arena with the Edison Innovation Green Growth Fund. The program proffers loans of up to $2 million for companies, research facilities and nonprofits engaged in producing clean energy technologies, ranging from energy efficiency products such as LED lighting to solar, wind, tidal, biomass and methane capture. A condition of the loan is that a project must employ 75 percent of its workforce from New Jersey, or commit to growing 10 high-paying jobs (minimum $75,000 annually) over two years (see Tinyurl.com/NewJersey-EDA).

Grassroots Leadership

Elinor Ostrom, the political economist who won a Nobel Prize in economics but passed on just before the start of the Rio conference, dedicated her last blog post to considering the event’s impact. Titled “Green from the Grassroots,” the post stressed the priority of a multifaceted approach to curbing emissions.

“Decades of research demonstrate that a variety of overlapping policies at city, subnational, national and international levels is more likely to succeed than single, overarching, binding agreements,” Ostrom remarked. “Such an evolutionary approach to policy provides essential safety nets should one or more policies fail. The good news is that evolutionary policymaking is already happening organically. In the absence of effective national and international legislation to curb greenhouse gases, a growing number of city leaders are acting to protect their citizens and economies.”

She reported that even in the absence of federally mandated emissions targets, 30 U.S. states have passed their own climate plans and more than 900 mayors signed a climate protection agreement essentially agreeing to reach the Kyoto Protocol goals the federal government refused to sanction.

Rio+20 built upon such bottom-up commitments and pushed states and businesses to go further than they’d ever imagined. “There was an incredible amount of energized activity,” concludes Scherr. “Many people came away feeling empowered and encouraged, because they saw that the sustainability movement is truly worldwide. That’s going to be the legacy of Rio.”

Brita Belli, the editor of  E-The Environmental Magazine, reports for Natural Awakenings.

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