Radical Sustainability: ICLEI World Congress 2009

[All this week I will be blogging from the ICLEI World Congress, currently running in Edmonton, Canada. Posts will be appearing both here and over at WorldChanging.com. For posts from the Congress (including MP3 and video) see here.]

What we are doing is not sufficient. Even if what the most advanced cities in ICLEI are doing were to suddenly become the norm, we would still not have reached a sustainable way of doing things. We need to look for more radical solutions.

That's not exactly the welcome that you'd expect from the Secretary General of the world's most influential municipal sustainability organization. But, at the ICLEI World Congress running in Edmonton until the end of the week, Conrad Otto-Zimmermann has set the stage for a no-bullshit conference.

When it comes to municipal sustainability, ICLEI means business. In some ways, it is the business.

ICLEI is the organization behind Local Agenda 21, probably the largest single sustainability campaign the world over. It has made its reputation by taking complex problems like climate change, biodiversity protection, encouraging local renewable energy, or sustainable procurement, and transforming them into understandable, approachable problems (see their programs here).

Their approach is to supply the tools and methods that allow cities to address issues that might otherwise seem insurmountable. Founded in 1990, their membership has more than doubled since 2006 to include over than 1000 local governments. They also carry out a crucial role in organizing the presence of local governments and international climate change negotiations run by the United Nations.

Lagging Results
But despite all that, results have be lagging. Take their Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) program. With their help, many cities have established inventories of the local carbon emissions and plans for managing them. But most have stumbled when it came to implementation, and real emissions reductions are far less than they could be. The CCP program has resulted in annual emissions reductions of 60 million tons of CO2. An accomplishment, but one that all the same needs to be seen against the 27 billion tons of CO2 we emit annually, and the fact that cities by some measure can impact somewhere between 50% to 70% of those emissions.

Megan Jamieson, director of the ICLEI Canada office, commented in one of the opening sessions that the nature of leadership has changed. 17 years ago, when the CCP started, simply being able to inventory local emissions was a very real accomplishment. Before ICLEI, it simply hadn't been done. Now though, measuring isn't enough: “for climate leaders to stay at the forefront, real results need to be shown.” I'm hoping to talk to her more later in the week about the push she has been leading to carry Canadian CCP cities through to implementation.

Looking for Radical Alternatives
But what would “radical sustainability” look like? And what role can an organization like ICLEI play in helping us to get to where we need to go. It's not just about implementing goals, it's about where the goals you set are going to take you.

ICLEI, so far, has steered clear of prescribing specific targets to their members. I can't see that changing. The organization obviously feels that it is necessary for all of us to be doing more though. Nobody who has been following the science this year would say differently.

I don't expect them to come up with one path towards a more radical approach. But the conference has lined up an strong list of presenters and over the next few days I will be covering their individual visions in more detail.

Sustainability is a field where cities often only want to celebrate their successes. It's refreshing to see such an organization like ICLEI standing up to say that they need to be doing more, and then backing that up with the will and resources to try to make it happen.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.


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