This week, thousands of delegates from governments, NGOs, business and civil society gather in Brazil at the United Nations summit to renew political and economic commitments for a sustainable planet.
The stakes are high. Rio+20 is billed as the most important summit of the 21st century. UN Secretary General Ban ki–Moon has referred to Rio+20 as “a once-in-a generation opportunity that is too important to fail”. Many expect, with bated breath, to see world leaders sign an international binding agreement to protect the planet’s life-support system and forestall a global humanitarian catastrophe. I find this expectation both ludicrous and interesting.
Ludicrous because we have no track record of solving problems that require global collective action, especially when such problems are urgent, consequences perilous and inter-generational. Examples abound in my own lifetime – poverty eradication, species extinction, global warming hunger and malnutrition.
Interesting because Friedrich Hagel was right when he said, “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. The diplomatic dysfunction of the UN at mega-conferences is legendary and consensus unattainable.
A weak outline of a non-binding agreement or the bare bones of a plan is probably the best we can hope for out of Rio+20. My suspicion is that there will be a chasm between developed and developing countries over who should bear the cost of sustainable development. But do not get me wrong. Failure or collapse of Rio+20 is not an option. We must demand action.
But the solutions and actions that we must demand should be local, not global. All problems are fundamentally local and therefore solutions must essentially be bottom up rather than top down. It is wishful thinking to imagine that the world can rely on a singular solution to solve complex problems on a planetary scale.
In 2009, the Copenhagen summit failed to produce a binding climate change agreement. In the Copenhagen climate change summit, large target goals on Carbon dioxide emission reductions were dropped. And the summit ended in failure. This was hardly surprising!
Research shows that local policy and action are more likely to succeed than are single, globally binding agreements. Here are two examples.
First, in the absence of globally binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cities across the world are acting autonomously to deal with both the causes and effects of climate change. For instance, New York City has set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emission by more than 30%.
Second, Enrique Penalosa, the Mayor of Bogota realized in 19988 that high quality urban transportation would work for all residents. Under his leadership, the city strengthened pedestrian and bicycle traffic alongside a bus-based rapid transit. Many cities across the developing world are replicating the Bogota model, showcasing the massive potential to increase mobility while reducing impact on the environment and delivering social equity.
Ideally, the local level is the right scale for managing and influencing change to embark on a sustainability pathway. Fundamentally, in a world where the focus is too often on state and international institutions, we must harness capacity for local collective action to advance sustainable futures.
The Rio+20 summit would be impressively deluded to imagine that a global agreement on a set of goals would deliver social, economic and environmental sustainability. Sustainability must be a path we seek through a dynamic process of local action, local experimentation, local learning and adaptation. Sustainability must be about understanding, acting through local collective action and devolved governance.
Our civilization has never had to deal with problems of the scale we face today in an intensely connected world. Sustainability at the local level must add up to the national and ultimately to the global level. Sustainability must form the substructure of local economies and constitute the tapestry of our interconnected collective futures.
The global effort this week at Rio+20 to bring the Earth's environment back into balance must recognize that it can be no less than the sum of cooperative local efforts. Consequently, the institutions that generate local collective action and stewardship are not merely desirable. They are essential ingredients of a broader conception of global sustainability.
Rio+20 must hearken to the wisdom of the recently deceased Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, who I knew personally. Ostrom demonstrated the efficacy of many different institutions working together at multiple scales – government, private sector, civil society and local user groups – and collaborating as opposed to depending on a single hegemonic governance structures.
What we do not need from Rio+20 is another innocuous list of lofty goals. What we need from Rio+20 is pragmatic framework for local action on issues such as poverty eradication, food security, water and sanitation, urbanization and resilience of communities and natural systems to climate risk, while reducing inequality within the planet’s boundaries.