In the Future We Want there are cities that fit in the capacity of one planet

The world’s ecological footprint exceeded its biocapacity by 50 percent in 2008. This means it takes 18 months for the Earth to regenerate the renewable resources that people have used in the 12 months (Living Planet Report 2012 by WWF). Helping to reverse this collision course between humans and nature is a new challenge for most national politicians, but even more for urban politicians, planners and managers, and for architects, civil engineers and city dwellers. Even though Rio+20 did not deliver the necessary framework for this transition it was one of the key topics at the Earth Summit. Many promising solutions and initiatives were shared and discussed.

The ‘planetary boundaries’ that are becoming evident in the face of global industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth have major implications for urban planning and governance. We must face up to the fact that cities are dependent systems whose reliance on external inputs for their sustenance is likely to become ever more precarious.

The challenge today is no longer just to create sustainable cities but truly regenerative cities: to assure that they do not just become resource-efficient and low carbon emitting, but that they positively enhance rather than undermine the ecosystem services they receive from beyond their boundaries. The concept of moving from Petropolis to Ecopolis (Herbert Girardet, World Future Council) visualizes how we need to reduce our dependency on resource imports by making use of local and regional resources. Lasse Gutavsson from WWF put it that way: “It is our obligation to find ways to live within the capacity of one planet and protect the natural wealth to make life on Earth also possible for future generations.”  A wide range of technical and management solutions towards this end are already available, but so far implementation has been too slow and too little.

So what are the decisions we need for the city of 2030? How do we move from theory to practice? From vision to action? These were the guiding questions of the side event the World Future Council together with ICLEI, Sweden, World Business Council on Sustainable Development, World Resources Institute, WWF and Rio+20s hosted in Rio. A continuation of current trends leads to a future of 2030 which is not the future we want. The event therefore aimed at exploring who can and will take the decisions we need today in order to set us on a path to a sustainable urban future by 2030.

David Cadman, President of ICLEI, argued that target setting is a key step. “By defining goals,” he said, “a city is able to set priorities and emphasize these in its political decision-making processes. The next steps would be measuring and reporting.” Cadman gave examples from Vancouver where he has served as city councilor for six years. Vancouver is a leading example when it comes building a future just city and has, for example, implemented a zero waste target by 2050. One of the key messages that Cadman stressed in his statement in Rio was that these targets have to be assessed by what is needed and not what can easily be reached. Only ambitious standards can lead the city towards sustainability.

In addition, Herbert Girardet from the World Future Council underlined the important role of political will and leadership. “The dynamic change that is needed only comes from the right national political framework”, he said. Feed-in tariffs is one of the best examples how national policies can lead to local action. Many examples – especially Germany-  show how communities can be empowered and benefit from the transition. Feed-in tariffs give each investor a guarantee to feed electricity produced from renewable energy technology into the grid and gets a certain tariff which is determined by law for 20 years. Hereby citizens, private investors, farmers, communities, municipalities and the private sector can participate in this development. Herbert Girardet shared his experience of Adelaide which is one of the most recent examples for how a policy can bring dynamic change and actually unleash the potential for renewable energy within a short period of time.

Talking about decisions we need for the city of 2030, UN Ambassador on Sustainable Development from Sweden Stefan Tillander sees a strong need for more collaborations across different governance levels. “In Rio 1992 Agenda 21 paved the way for new collaborations by including new stakeholders. 20 years later we need again that kind of push to enable multi-stakeholder processes as well as strengthen local and regional initiatives.”

The need for more collaboration was also stressed by Nicky Gavron. From her experience as former deputy Mayor of London she knows that big cities have to learn from smaller cities. City networks and alliances are therefore an important tool to provide dialogue. Further Nicky criticized politicians for not collaborating closely enough with business. “Business wants certainty and leadership from politics but in current policy making they don’t get this. We need new business models led my smart politics.”, said Nicky Gavron in Rio. Philippe Joubert, Senior Advisor, WBCSD welcomed this statement and offered “if politics put the right framework in place business is keen to bring the solutions.”  Further Joubert supported the call from many civil society organizations to “make the prices right instead of externalizing environmental costs.” Luciano Frontelle from Rio+20s Youth added in this context that elimination of fossil fuel subsidies is one of the key decisions for the city 2030.

The youngest panelist Luciano further demand from decision makers that they must learn from and engage with the people that are living the problems we need to solve. “Citizens usually know best what kind of decisions needs to be taken but they don’t know to whom they can present their solutions.” Luciano therefore calls for ‘collective intelligence’ and presented one solution he initiated called “Cidade democrática”. It is an online platform for political participation, where citizens and entities can express themselves, communicate and generate mobilization for the construction of a society better specifically in urban areas. Another example for enhancing stakeholder engagement comes from WWF. “Mobilizing and engaging people worked well by creating a competition. In “The Earth Hour City Challenge” the task was to plan a city that fits in the capacity of our planet.” Lasse Gutavsson from WWF shared. This kind of initiatives don’t only raise awareness but can also be a tool to experiment and actually test solutions for a future just city 2030.

Coming from a macro perspective Manish Bapna, Acting President of the World Resource Institute emphasized the need to bring environment and finance together. “How many finance ministers are here in Rio?” he asked and actually hit the nail on the head. The world of environment and the world of finance and economics are still far apart which became very obvious again in Rio. And Lasse Gutavsson from WWF added “investments going into urban infrastructure in the next years are expected to be about 5 times of global GDP. It is on us to actually direct that into sustainable and future just projects.” In order to do that Nicky Gavron emphasized that investors too often talk to treasury departments who are run by economists that are not able to predict a paradigm shift. In line with the argument that we need to bring environment and finance together Gavron is afraid that economists do not see the opportunity and potential of this paradigm shift. Treasury should therefore not be the first focal point for investors.

Summarising the discussions of this and other side events Rio showed again that one of the key challenges but also the only way forward is bringing top-down and bottom-up approaches together. That means putting the right policies in place and enabling communities and citizens to participate and engage.

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012