New City Moves Help Wipe Away Tears After Rio +20

Suppose they held a United Nations  conference on sustainability and nobody came?

As much as leaders of global citizen groups have tried to rally world opinion around the June 20-22 Rio + 20 conference with a petition called The World We Don’t Want — a cute slam at the official declaration called The World We Want – it’s time to fess up that the most anyone could have hoped for was The Words We Want. And why get involved in a war of words anymore than a war with guns?

I know about the adrenalin roller coaster at UN meets, but it’s always calming to realize that little of what’s resolved at these meetings gets enacted because there’s no enforcement mechanism. So the evasive 46-page declaration wasn’t what I wanted, and the $513 billion in commitments wasn’t what’s the world needs, but I was protected from disappointment by  my low expectations. And I was heartened that a group at Rio grasped the true value of such conferences — a chance to meet and learn from others, and start thinking of more effective ways to get down to work.

In my books, the person of the hour, who actually named the problem of world class irrelevance during and after the flash in the pan at Rio is Michael Bloomberg.  He’s a multi-millionaire philanthropist, mayor of New York and head of a 7-year old group called C40 — which, confirming the advice to avoid use of numbers in founding names of orgs, is a collaboration of 59 of the world’s very large cities.

After a pre-conference meeting with other mayors in Rio, Bloomberg threw down the gauntlet on the eve of the full Rio + 20 conference. The actions of C40 mayors provide “more evidence that cities have been and will continue to lead the way” in practical efforts to protect the climate and sustainability, he said. National governments can argue among themselves, he said, repeating the criticism of many speeches over the last year, but C40 cities are well on the way to implementing 4700 new projects that will eliminate 248 million tons of global warming gases by 2020.

C40 is the organization to watch, and the reason is that cities, home to over half the population, have a different calculus for weighing costs and benefits of sustainability  and for putting ideas into motion.

The most obvious thing about C40 is that it’s a group for cities, not nations. Scratch the surface of that, and there’s more than a mere difference in jurisdiction.

Cities have very different ways of calculating cost-benefit ratios of sustainability moves, and that difference from nation states is increasingly causing conflict throughout the world.

Though cities are responsible for about 70 per cent of global warming emissions, it’s a rare city that sits on, owns, regulates or reaps taxes, jobs or other benefits from oil, gas or coal reserves. As often as not, high emissions of fossil fuels in cities are the result of subsidies and other practices embedded at the national level and imposed on cities – consider the several hundred billions in global subsidies to fossil fuel companies  compared to the budget for conservation or alternatives, for example.

Corporations in the resource and allied fields (pesticide and fertilizer companies that use fossil fuels as major inputs, for example) hold sway at the national, not city, level. When meetings of nations take place, the views of resource corporations figure much larger and more positively than at meetings of cities, where resources are viewed as an import, a cost, and a source of economic  and environmental problems, such as smog. Cities enjoy few direct benefits from resource and allied industries, but face much higher risks from global warming than rural areas where the resources often come from. For example, cities are highly vulnerable to heat waves (made worse by the urban “heat island effect,” floods (most cities border on an ocean or river), droughts and food shortages expected to increase as a result of failure to regulate fossil fuel pollution.

This difference and conflict explains why cities need to come into their own, develop their own voice and capabilities during a century when the majority of people live in cities and need support for new job-intensive service industries that help produce clean air, water and food. Global organizations that only represent national governments are obsolete in today’s world, because they no longer represent the majority of people, experiences or interests of an urban world.

In stark contrast to the abstract declarations favored by the UN, the business agenda of C40 meets is  brass tack practicalities.  That roll-up-your-sleeves style expresses the reality of cities, again quite different from national governments. Cities, not nation states, have authority, mandate, capacity, tools, skills and wherewithal to deal on the ground with transportation, waste and building issues that give rise to excessive use of fossil fuels. Cities own many buildings, set the building code regulations for others, pick up garbage, provide public transit, license cabs and many other businesses, operate traffic lights and night lights, manage water utilities, oversee schools, and can develop official plans and strategies  to reduce and offset smog  and pollution.

The layout and density of cities also makes it easier for them to do the right thing by sustainability. City residents live close enough to friends and services to take advantage of walking, cycling and public transit. Office towers, condos and apartments are more cheaply renovated for energy savings than isolated homes.  Likewise, the mass purchasing power of cities gives them power to influence food choices, responsible for about a third of global warming emission.

Food is one area of city life, rich in possibilities for sustainability impacts, that C40 is totally oblivious to at the present time, but sustainable food systems can thrive with help from the same kind of practical interventions that cities now promote for transportation and building efficiencies. Few mayors know more about how to do this that Mayor Bloomberg, who’s made New York a pioneer of healthy food innovations.

Since no-one has yet found the nerve to tell UN officials they have no clothes, officials at these conferences, along with hapless environmentalists who take the gatherings seriously,  still pretend they can actually do something, when in fact one of the few things national governments represented at the UN have the authority and tools to act on is to stop subsidizing polluting fuels, auto industries and the like. Activist governments at the national level don’t need declarations from the UN directing them to do more things they don’t have the mandate or know-how to do. Less is more, especially when it comes to bad subsidies.

Another reason why groups like C40 are omens of the future has to do with organizational style.

Cities have no formal authority to meet and proclaim on matters of world import. So they form voluntary networks to share information, as well as voluntary partnerships to build capacity to implement programs.  This has been a tried and true way of getting things done over many millennia, and measures up well against the analysis-paralysis specialty of nation states reps who prefer more control, less independent initiative.

Funding for C40 comes largely from private foundations, notably the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Climate Initiative. (A nice thing about any Clinton initiative is that there’s no need to wonder who’s behind it.) Partnerships happen on the fly, as need arises, as with the collaboration among US alternative media to research climate change impacts – producing articles that are frequent tweeted to C40 followers.

When members join as yea-sayers rather than nay-sayers, networks can travel light. This strategy of organizational learning might be called, if the source hadn’t been poisoned, a coalition of the willing.

The record of many C40 cities is awe-inspiring. London shows off its downtown Elephant and castle project, the biggest park addition to the city in 70 years, which will also house 2800 families and employ 5000 people. New York shows off its biggest park expansion since the 1930s (green space absorbs and sinks carbon) and also features a billion square feet of rooftop that’s being greened, painted white for reflection or converted to solar panels. In Columbia, Bogota encourages electric taxis.

One C40 document refers to cities as the “test beds” for innovation. Indeed, I found in my work in Toronto, where I managed the food policy council, that cities are ideal places to conduct experimental pilot projects. Cities are one branch of government where “research and development” is manageable.  C40 contributes by sharing, as they plan to do with a manual of environmental best practices. They also have a program whereby experienced city directors help with on-the-job training of directors in other cities doing similar work.

Those who want to keep abreast of the hot new trend in international civics should follow the World Cities Summit, which meets in Singapore July 1 to 4.


  1. Hi Wayne,

    Kudos to your Rio+20 coverage. I am really impressed with your thoughts and postings on Sustainability, etc. I am a long time advocate of Sustainability and Sustainable Living. You can visit my blog at – for the latest on Sustainability.

    Keep up the good work.


    Vikram R Chari

  2. Great post. The UN emporer has no clothes. But cities and (some) corporations are picking up the challenge. Wayne, I teach a course on Green Marketing at U Waterloo. Would you be interested in being a guest speaker at a class this fall? Our senior environment and business students would be most interested in what you have say about the role of cities in having real impact on sustainability issues. Best Bill

  3. Paul Dowsett says:

    I’m just gonna hazard a guess here that Rob Ford, mayor of Canada’s largest (and most dysfunctional) city was a ‘no show’ due to ‘family commitments’ at his cottage. Am I right ?

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