England & Wales Climate action and sustainable development

Rio Earth Summit: local government leading the way


The LGiU has been working hard over the past months to get the UK government to recognise a local dimension to sustainable development. The perfect excuse for such a debate was provided by the Earth Summit – Rio+20, governance was on the agenda.

However, the response to the opportunities provided by local sustainability has been hard to detect. It is understandable that the coalition would want to support UK industry and promote the green economy which they did in Rio, but this is also the government of the Big Society, why no promotion of grass roots action or civil society?

As it turns out, for the impact it had on the final declaration, the UK delegation could have saved their airfare. The Brazilians had decided to run the show with an iron fist and the required statements by Nick Clegg and Caroline Spelman were noted but had no influence. So after so little promise, the final declaration is still a disappointment. The best that can be said of it is that it hasn’t actually stopped any useful initiatives.

I was at Rio and the week before at Belo Horizonte discussing how councils and cities can help to deliver sustainability. The arguments are persuasive. If you look around the globe at brave initiatives that are real game changers, they tend not to be national schemes, instead we have Curitiba in Brazil revolutionising public transport, Oslo Municipality making the city carbon neutral, London’s congestion charge and the countless cities around the world who have developed clean water facilities. There are too few of these examples but they share two vital characteristics, they were founded upon a local understanding of social and environmental pressures and they were legitimised by democratic elections.

After many conciliatory words from ministers and Ban Ki Moon himself, the end result for councils is a recognition in the text that sustainable development can only be delivered by national, sub national, regional and local government working together. There is also recognition of the special role of cities. It’s not much and is actually a step backwards after the impetus provided by Local Agenda 21 at the original Rio summit.

So what is likely to happen? My view is that meaningful action by the international bodies and national governments will be minimal for at least the next five years with the exception of poverty alleviation and climate change. That leaves resource management, biodiversity, food security, water, forests  and waste. This is where the opportunities exist for councils and cities to take the lead. The highlight of the ICLEI conference in Belo Horizonte was a speech by Jeb Brugmann advocating the ‘productive city’ – a benign city which exports food, clean water, energy and materials rather than a beast that needs constant feeding. Given that 90% of us will be living in cities by the end of the century if the productive city is realised then so might sustainability.