Rio+20 Business Focus: Cities – key battleground for global sustainability?

Politicians make the policy. But it’s often left to business to implement it. For this reason RioPlus Business is featuring submissions from business across the globe in the lead up to Rio+20.

The aim is to demonstrate how Sustainable Development is becoming a reality on every continent, country and city.

Here Felicia Jackson explains that with progress on the international level proving too slow to effect the change needed, cities could step up and provide the alternative approaches needed.

Cities have a crucial part to play in implementing a global framework for sustainability.

In their role as hubs of commerce as well as home to billions, cities consume upward of 75% of the world’s energy.

They’re also growing in size and importance – by 2008 over half the world’s population (over 3.3bn people) lived in cities, a number expected to reach nearly 5 billion by 2030.

Over five billion people are expected to live in cities by 2030 (© wuestenigel/Creative Commons)

Many of today’s economic, social, environmental and demographic problems are concentrated in cities.

These are often interrelated and have a significant impact on sustainability.

In order to develop an acceptable framework for growth that works both for the developed and the newly industrialising world, we need to accept that the system is dynamic, and that solving these problems will require a paradigm shift in the way people live, work and travel.

Guy Battle, head of Deloitte’s sustainability practice believes that cities are the key battleground.

He says, “The battle of sustainability will be won or lost within city limits.”

As cities have developed, there has been a rush to implement short term infrastructure solutions, slow to respond to the challenges of emissions reduction, resource efficiency, energy security and waste reduction.

Sustainability demands that cities address economic challenges alongside the delivery of mobility, water, energy, pollution, sanitation and health services.

Financing change

That increasingly means exploring closed cycles and resource systems but the issue remains how the transition to such systems can be financed.

There are options from infrastructure bonds, redirection of pension investment, or even of local investment. Birmingham City Council’s energy costs are around £2.2 billion for example.

If only 25% of this could be spent on locally generated energy, or saved through the implementation of energy efficiency, that’s half a billion to inject back into the local economy.

Given that billions already live in urban environments, and the growth of the megacity continues apace, we need to look at our cities as systems of innovation.

We need solutions that bind people together in understanding the need for action, and towards common goals.

Cities, by virtue of their responsibilities in managing transportation and waste management networks, in setting standards for energy efficiency, in managing local pollution and in responsibility for planning, can play a significant leadership role in the transformation to a sustainable economy.

Local governments own and operate a considerable portfolio of buildings, fleets, and other infrastructure and through their progressive actions to reduce emissions have a great potential to lead by example.

Siemens has modelled that with today’s technologies, cities could achieve a 40% reduction in emissions.

Sustainability will mean cities must meet economic challenges at the same time as delivering on mobility, water, energy, pollution, sanitation and health services (© wiki.will/Creative Commons)

According to Martin Powell, Head of Urban Development at Siemens, we need both political backing and public support in order to reach emissions targets and create sustainable urban environments.

He says, “Cities are the co-ordinators between the different policy levers of environment, climate, energy and transport. They understand the impact of energy policy decisions on water and waste.

If a city states it wants to buy hydrogen for its bus fleet, then the business case is made for a plant that generates hydrogen. We have the tools to effect change, now it’s about connecting the dots.”

Action at Rio+20

At a European level, the belief that cities are the most effective engine for action has been made explicit through the work of the Committee of the Regions.

Its President, Mercedes Bresso, says, “The future of Europe hinges on our towns and cities. In the face of climate change and overconsumption of natural resources, our towns and cities are in the front line for driving sustainable development.

“They must do this through policies on housing, renewable energy production, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption, better waste management, and cleaner public transport,” says Bresso.

The Committee has proposed that delegates to Rio+20 make sustainable urbanisation a key focus, using the model of the Covenant of Mayors, a voluntary agreement to meet and exceed the EU 20% CO2 reduction target, as a model to implement the principles of sustainability across the cities and regions.

Perhaps, by working together at a local and regional level, cities could lead us towards a more sustainable future.

Felicia Jackson is a writer and editor specialising in the transition to a sustainable economy. Author of Conquering Carbon, and editor-at-large of Cleantech Magazine, she is former founding editor of New Energy Finance, and a freelance contributor to a range of specialist publications focused on the impact of the low carbon revolution on policy, economics, investment and industry.

This article is part of a series commissioned by the Rio Conventions for their RioPlus Business project.


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