A Mayor Breakthrough in Cancun

Written by Sven Eberlein
I was asked to contribute to blogathons about the Climate Change Convention in Cancun for and Daily Kos. Here are my thoughts and observations, not surprisingly with a focus on cities.

This week in Cancun, governments and NGOs from around the world are taking another shot at solving the climate crisis after last year’s highly anticipated VIP-laden COP 15 conference in Copenhagen that created a big bubbly buzz and ended in a long contemplative sigh of nothingness.

While much of the approach to the Big Kahuna in Cancuna is still centered around cryptic diplomat speak that tries to accommodate everybody and pleases nobody, the one question that the indefatigable ecocity advocate Richard Register has been asking for over 35 years — Why on earth aren’t they talking about cities???

seems to finally have been heard:

After cities were shut out at COP15, Marcelo Ebrard, Mayor of Mexico City and Chair of the World Mayors Council on Climate Change, has been invited to speak at a high level panel at COP16.

I don’t know about you, but this is how these climate summits have been feeling to me: While a bunch of hard to pin down suits are on some elusive chase to wheel and deal carbon credits, the rest of us mere mortals are left speculating over whether there’ll be some sort of an agreement by someone about something. Those of us not in the inner circle of the climate deciders are sitting here, picking the petals off our rising sea level daisies: They’ll save us. They’ll save us not. They’ll save us. They’ll save us not. They’ll save us. They’ll save us not…

Okay, so I’m not an expert, insider, or have any other climate credentials to my name, but as a concerned and (hopefully) thinking global citizen all that carbon haggling just seems so distant, uninspiring and endlessly vague, as if we’re having ghost-negotiations about someone else’s planet. Looking at this year’s conference program still seems like an exercise in reading hieroglyphics. Yes, I know there’s been a lot of talk and negotiations since Kyoto that this is building on, but how on earth is this session going to inspire any action?:

Preparation of an outcome to be presented to the Conference of the Parties for adoption at its sixteenth session to enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Convention through long-term cooperative action now, up to and beyond 2012

Or this:

Appeal by Croatia against a final Report of the Compliance Committee decision of the enforcement branch of the Compliance Committee in relation to the implementation of decision 7/CP.

Sure, I can dig it, this is policy wonk/diplomat/lawyer speak that’s necessary to set up a system by which entire countries will reduce/trade/sell/shuffle/buy/barter/postpone/preempt their CO2 emissions, but I just can’t help wondering that even if they ever figure out who is going to do what and when, the most consequential question will still remain: HOW?

You know, as in… saying you’ll cut your CO2 emissions by xyz percent by 20?? is the easy part. Actually doing it is a whole different story.

That’s why I’m so pleased to bring to your attention the conference that took place less than two weeks ago, just up the map from Cancun, in Mexico City, and that seems to finally have opened the ears of the powers-that-be to some real life solutions:

World Mayors Summit on Climate 2010

Why is this a big deal? Well, according to David Cadman, head of Local Governments for Sustainability, cities play an absolutely strategic role in the fight against climate change. Urban areas consume as much as 60 percent of global energy production, emit 70 percent of greenhouse gases and will house two-thirds of the world’s population by mid-century. Not to mention megacities such as Mexico City, Seoul, Istanbul or Los Angeles that have larger populations than entire countries but have carried no weight in United Nations climate change talks.

drawing by Richard Register

It’s just so blindingly obvious that none of the big wigs seem to be able to see it: The best way to reduce fossil fuel burning is to create infrastructures that don’t force people to waste so much energy. The places to make the biggest dent is in cities, where you can shorten millions of people’s trips and carbon footprints by gradually shifting away from a car, sprawl and cheap energy infrastructure to compact pedestrian, bicycle, and renewable energy oriented land and materials uses.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that redesigning a city around the measure, needs and potential of the human being (and not the automobile) and based upon ecological principles, can significantly cut its carbon emissions. Case in point: A person living in Washington D.C. currently has 3 times the carbon footprint of a person living in New York City, 6 times the carbon footprint of a person living in Barcelona and almost 10 times the carbon footprint of a person living in Rio de Janeiro.

Think about it: The always hurried and frantic inner city New Yorker produces only 1/3 the CO2 of a mellow suburban Washingtonian, simply because s/he doesn’t have to drive across town for every little haircut. And before you say it’s impossible to change Washington D.C.’s urban infrastructure, just take a look at what has been accomplished in places like Vancouver, Curitiba, or Freiburg.

Mayors to the Rescue

The solution has literally come knocking on the United Nations’ door. Sending a clear message to the international community on the strategic importance of cities in the struggle against climate change, 138 cities signed The Global Cities Covenant on Climate, or Mexico City Pact in Mexico City last week, stating why cities are strategic in combating global warming and establishing a set of voluntary commitments to promote strategies and actions aimed at mitigating GHG emissions and adapting cities to the impacts of climate change.

Yes, it’s voluntary, but volunteerism is actually great when participants are really into the cause rather than using it as a pretext to not do anything. The mayors have set up carbonn Cities Climate Registry (CCCR) where new cities can sign a pledge to take the first steps or cities with climate actions already in place can verify their progress. Already, Calgary, Copenhagen, Cape Town, Mexico City and Nagpur have provided climate data in the registry.

So on December 7, when Marcelo Ebrard, on behalf of 138 cities from around the world, will for the first time get to address high level leaders at a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change about local government advocacy, the Mexico City Pact and the cCCR, we can only hope they’ll listen and realize the huge potential in giving more resources and recognition to the city governments that are on the front-lines in the fight against climate change.

Unless, well, unless… they get stuck in traffic on the way to the conference…



City & Local Government action coming up in Cancun

Marcelo Ebrard, Mayor of Mexico City and Chair of the World Mayors Council on Climate Change will speak at the opening of the High Level Segment at COP16 which begins on the morning of 7 December — a unique opportunity to address the world’s leaders about local government advocacy, the Mexico City Pact and the cCCR.

Gino Van Begin, ICLEI‘s Deputy Secretary General, will coordinate local government advocacy at COP 16. Daily bilateral meetings will focus on the need for nations to recognize and support local climate action in UNFCCC negotiations. Follow daily live videos and reports on ICLEI’s Local Government Climate Roadmap site:

ICLEI will host a side event at COP 16: Introducing global mechanisms for measurable, reportable, verifiable local climate action, 3 December 2010 Friday, 20.15 – 21.45, Room Monarca

Local leaders will also present latest positions with regard to UNFCCC/KP negotiations, paying specific attention to the fact that nations in Nagoya at UNCBD-COP10 recognized and supported local government action by adopting the “Plan of Action on Subnational Governments, Cities and Other Local Authorities on Biodiversity”. The strong wish for a similar outcome at UNFCCC COP16 will be addressed.

About the author

Sven Eberlein

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  • What a well-written and well-researched article, Sven. This one really gives me hope that the message is getting through. The key really is smaller homes, closer together with local shops, and mass transportation available to those who don’t work in the area. The dream is slowly becoming reality. What a service you are doing in following all of this. Thank you.

    • Pam, it’s a long hard road, but it’s so worth the work. We’ve got to use our soul wisdom to make the difficult changes on the ground, I think that’s what it’s all about. No deed too small, indeed!

  • Sven, after decades of ecological engagement, I don’t expect anything from those send around the planet (co2!) to agree what procrastinating “sound good noise”lullaby will convince a not too much change demanding middle class, that consuming&booming industry can rhyme with ecological future.

    The changes strangely enough happens sometimes because of one or few engaged people acting locally with an interconnected engaged awareness.
    I experienced that one letter can help create a “by call”cheap ticket taxi in the country side, or that in one weekend 60 old trees in a park can be “saved” from a person with a flue, waking up the media by phone.
    It s up to each of us to do what is possible!( I just write all this wrapped in a blanket with finger gloves…less heat!). Solidarity is good, but expecting systems who have other interests ( I saw also the greed for profitable careers in “green” structures!) to “show the way” can led to delusions.

    • I have to agree with you on this assessment, antiphonsgarden. As I mention in the piece, all those big climate conferences seem like a lot of blahblahblah to me, where a bunch of politicians get to feel really important for a few days. I think what makes this one a little bit more interesting than Kopenhagen is that there seem to be two conferences going on side by side. One for the suits and big wigs, and then there’s another one (Klimaforum) where a lot of activists and indigenous people are discussing local action.

      Personally, I’m also more and more tending toward local and personal action. Last night we had a party for 30 people and we created zero waste. My city, San Francisco, has now a 75% waste diversion rate (reducing, recycling & composting), and the goal is for zero waste by the year 2020. If nothing else, at least it feels like I’m doing something in creating change rather than just being confused and frustrated by national and international leadership. But you’re also right, we have big systemic problems, our entire economic system that’s based on perpetual growth is completely unsustainable and I’m not entirely sure that all our personal efforts can overcome the greed and waste that’s built into the system. But it’s worth the effort, if enough of us reject the cheap plastic crap and disposable lifestyle that’s being sold to us, and we get a critical mass of people who understand these systemic problems and refuse to participate, then perhaps a real green revolution is possible. Either way, I go by Vaclav Havel’s great statement: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

  • I like this last statement. As we tend to project our unconscious on humanity, I deeply believe that self acceptance leads to a change of awareness of what we truly need. I had the luck to rise up in a surrounding who welcomed the individual engagement adjusted to the own conscience under whatever conditions( an inner freedom from the mainstream mind!). I guess, a rest of intrepid aristocratic panache, I miss in a society where middle class kids gets probably trained to “make a good career” (an evident self neglect of oneself as “simple” human !) regardless the impact of their doing (or non doing!). I admit frankly, I have never fit into this petty ambition concept. I wished, I could tell as someone who renounced to certain “privileges”, that all this wannabe nouveau riche “up climbing” trip is not worth the disastrous effort, and that the real luxury is living a life in accordance to our REAL needs like shelter, food, creativity and communication. Neurologically the Smith theorem of greed is not true, we are a social caring specie, who got brainwashed, but still…compassion is natural.

    • me too, I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a family that never participated in the rat race and valued creativity and community over money. Not caring about the accumulation of material possessions comes naturally to me, but I’ve learned from others how hard it is to shed that mentality if you were raised that way. So I feel like my mission is to show how fulfilling life can be without many material things — I’ve found it to be most effective when people can find out for themselves how nice a simple life can be.

  • I think that basic income would allow basic democracy. Both necessary steps if we want a real change to happen. Citizen free of the fears of surviving and fully engaged in the processes of decisions could engage in a more mature concept of creative participation of civil responsibility.
    The days were citizen seeded a representative on bumpy roads in carriages to the main city to be forgotten after by him for the next years till he needed their little bulletin in the voting box again, are over.The tools exist, and the “masses” might learn by their practice to do better than pleasing the lobby’s.