I attended the recent summit for the Urban Environmental Accords held in Gwangju, South Korea, between 11-13 October 2011. The event was attended by a large range of city mayors and governments, most of whom were from developing world contexts. The event served more as an awareness building exercise than an opportunity for negotiation, and while it received heavy media coverage within South Korea, it largely went unnoticed by the international press. To some extent, it seemed to be conducted in the shadow of the upcoming COP17 international climate agreement negotiations forum to be held in Durban later this year. This was a pity, as it is clear that cities are experiencing rapid growth (especially in the developing world), and are already consumers of 80% of global material and energy supply, and producers of 75-80% of GHG emissions. As such, cities themselves hold the key to taking local actions and forging inter-city agreements, forming funding and support mechanisms (e.g. skills transfer) that can help bring about the drastic reductions in emissions that are required for slowing down the effects of global climate change. The lack of attention that the Urban Environmental Accords is receiving (in comparison to COP 17) is symptomatic of the often misplaced belief that is placed in international consensus and cooperation in the era of globalisation. While global agreements are important, it does not stop cities from making agreements with each other, and innovating new funding and cooperation mechanisms that are required in light of the uncertainty that centralised funding of carbon trading faces post 2012. Indeed, this is what the World Bank itself seemed to be encouraging in it's presentation at the summit.
A key issue that was raised at the summit, was the difficulty of accounting for emissions savings and reductions, and the difficulty of negotiating the bureaucracy of centralised emission tradings schemes. In particular, developing world countries and cities often lack the institutional capacity and skills that are required to access these funds, effectively rendering the process useless to them. In respect of this, simplified procedures and protocols have been put in place for city-level emissions trading by the World Bank, so "in theory" city-level trading can now commence. It remains to be seen to what level these theoretical arrangements can be actualised in practice, but it is a good sign that efforts have been made to enable emissions trading at the city level.
What was clear from the discussions and presentations that were made at the summit, is that cities have an overwhelmingly large role to play in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, and that this role is being accepted by city governments. Many are aligning their infrastructural, economic and human competence development strategies with the goals of low-carbon consumption, production and waste in mind. Achieving the behavioural changes that are required for low and zero carbon living to take root, was also recognised as a core goal. In short, business-as-usual in cities has to change, and city governments are grappling with the question of how best to make infrastructural changes that will enable a low-carbon future.
In respect of infrastructure, the core themes that were dealt with at the summit include; building energy efficiency, waste management, sustainable urban transport, water and wastewater, and urban ecosystem management. Notably, even though food in European cities (for example) account for up to 30% of their ecological footprint, the food sector was not formally dealt with at the summit. This, despite the high levels of awareness that middle class, global consumers themselves have displayed in the food choices they make and how that affects the global climate and environmental sustainability. Over and above the particular themes, it was also widely recognised that integrated approaches towards carbon reduction and sustainability were required at the city level i.e. approaches that can help address the symptoms of the prevailing urban divide, such as poverty, inequality, unemployment, lack of access to basic services, lack of mobility, and so forth. Integrated approaches that can address social, economic and ecological concerns are necessary to ensure sustainability in the long term.
At the end of the summit, there was a lack of concrete agreements and arrangements for how to stimulate and maintain inter-city cooperation, and to put agreements in place that could be monitored and adapted over time. Rather, the main directive seemed to be to raise the importance of city-level issues at COP17. It is difficult to imagine how this will be possible amidst the din that will ensue at COP17, where myriad and diverse interests will gather, each with their own particular sub-agenda to champion. It may well prove that the cities agenda may be lost within this tangle of competing interests, and remain under-appreciated for its importance in actualising real change at local levels that can lead to significant global emission reductions. Cities have the potential to steam ahead on the emissions reduction front, and to take the lead that many national governments have been unable to. In this respect, although the summit was useful in resurrecting the Urban Environmental Accords, a great deal more work remains to be done between cities themselves. The good news is that they do not have to wait for international agreements to proceed. A framework already exists in which they can begin participating in emissions reductions, and earning carbon emission reduction credits for these activities.