In June the Rio +20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development will be held. Few will place much confidence in the capacity of national governments to drive forward an inclusive and environmental agenda for the world, as happened at Rio in 1992. Rather, the leaders of change today more and more seem to be the mayors of cities in Latin America. For example, Mexico City is at the forefront of planning and implementing strategies for environmental improvement and climate change adaptation and mitigation.
First the bad news
With a few honourable exceptions, the economic crisis has drained what little willpower existed amongst the governments of the rich countries to tackle environmental degradation, poverty and climate change. Europe, that at least made some of the right noises in the past, is now engrossed in austerity policies that are nominally aimed at debt reduction, yet which (as Keynes knew long ago) actually produce greater debts. The Greek economy is now in its fifth year of decline.
Canada has declined to renew its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol for 2013-17. Their government talks of the need to “balance” environment with jobs and economic growth, and to align their climate change policies with those of the USA. Meanwhile, in the USA itself, the Republican Party has decided that Agenda 21 from Rio 192 is “insidious” and “destructive”, while Tea Party activists now realise what none of us had previously suspected – that bike lanes, public transport and urban open space are part of a UN plot. A Fox News commentator has also revealed that there is “a U.N. plan called Agenda 21, where a centralized planning agency would be responsible for oversight into all areas of our lives.”
Many will dismiss such talk as the ravings of a fringe disconnected with reality. However, this would be to overlook the role being played by powerful and immensely wealthy lobby groups in attempting to shape public opinion. Fox News, for example can command resources and attention on a scale beyond many nation states.
Furthermore, it’s not just the economy that has changed since 1992, national politics has also been remodelled along consumerist lines, as parties and their pollsters compete for the votes of the middle ground. OK, I admit that this does not seem to be the case with the Republicans in the US just now, but in general fewer and fewer national politicians are willing to stick their necks out for causes that may prove unpopular in the short term with middle income voters. Green dressing may be permitted, even desired, but don’t expect any substance. David Cameron, those huskies, and his bicycle ride seem a long time ago.
In contrast, across Latin America, the mayors of big cities are powerful figures whose politics more are tuned to their local residents and the state of their city. As a generalisation they tend to be left of centre, attracted to public involvement, and prepared to make exactly the local/global connections at the core of Agenda 21. Other examples are for another time: let’s look at Mexico City, because it is widely recognised to be a leader.
By the 1990s the city’s environmental problems were causing increasing concern. Air pollution was bad: more often than not it was not possible to see the famous Popocateptl and Iztacicihuatl volcanoes from the city. Growth and sprawl were adding to the problems: water supply became an issue. at 2300 meters and surrounded by mountains water has to be pumped in.
Mayor Marcelo Ebrard introduced his Plan Verde (“Green Plan” – I got A level Spanish in 1962!) in 2007. It’s a 15 year strategy with $1 billion-per-year investment to develop new transport, water, waste, land conservation and alternative energy programs for the city. Climate change is a central concern, and a $5.4 billion Climate Action Program aims to reduce the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by 7 million tons—about 12 %—from 2008 to 2012.
Other Plan Verde initiatives include urban gardens and compost piles for 15 middle-class apartment complexes. Collection centres are planned where residents can sort, clean and resell recyclable materials to local industries. A staggering 59 per cent of the total land area of the Federal District of Mexico City is designated a conservation area. However, there has long been a problem with illegal development, logging and fires, In response, the City has created a special police unit of 1,500 officers to enforce environmental regulations in the land conservation areas.
The Climate Action Program
There are five key areas of focus in the Climate Action Program – transport, water, energy, waste and adaptation. Thus, as part of a “Travel by Bike” initiative 300 kms of bike routes are being created in “corridors for non-motorized transport”. There are also nine bus rapid transport corridors with 200km of restricted lanes. Traditional taxis are being replaced by electric cars to cut emissions. A new 16.5 mile subway line is due to open in April. In the waste sector there is an ambitious project to capture biogas from a landfill site.
These are mitigation actions: however, adaptation is also built into the programme. For example, one notable element is work on urban ravines to reduce the impacts of heavy rain. This is likely to benefit vulnerable low income groups who live in such locations. There is also reforestation and soil conservation on the urban fringe.
While the programme is not yet complete, some critical voices are being raised. José Luis Lezama, director of the Center for Demographic, Urban and Environmental Studies (CEDUA) at El Colegio de México, says that not all the projects are being put into practice. He also notes that much of the Climate Action Program is focused on mitigating the effects of global warming, rather than help higher-risk populations, such as lower-income families displaced by heavy flooding in outlying neighborhoods, adjust to the effects of climate change.
Deep inequalities persist. People live on landfill sites, and some poor areas of the city can receive a water supply on only 4 days a week. The mayor has conceded that there are difficulties. He is quoted as saying that “Many Mexican cities grew in a disorderly fashion, and so, even if you wanted to do things now, you have to first solve previously created problems. You have to dedicate time and resources to fix these issues…and that delays the delivery of good [climate] projects.” That’s the thing about planning: you don’t realise you need it until you see the problems created by unplanned development.