It seems a recurring pattern: global UN conferences on climate change and sustainable development get a lot of publicity in the days before and after the actual event, while outside this range you cease to hear anything. Consequently, the expectations created by the conferences and the ideas following them are hardly met in the process of implementation. Like my fellow DS-author Lucille wrote earlier on the UN Habitat III conference on sustainable urban housing and development (17-20 october 2016, Quito, Ecuador), I too cannot help but be afraid that in this case (as well as many others) it will be no different.
By Eric Schreurs
Since Habitat I in Vancouver in 1976 (Habitat II took place in Istanbul in 1996), the global percentage of people that lived in cities rose from 37.9% to 54.5%. In those same 40 years a rise of the total world population from 4.1 billion to 7.4 billion took place. Hence compared to 1976, now almost three times as many people live in our earth’s urban settlements, while these same urban settlements have not gained geological surface. Enter Habitat III, the global UN conference to address these problems related to climate change in cities.
Unfortunately, like many international political agreements from the past, the Habitat III new urban agenda fails to give all too much guarantee for implementation success in the future. To put one thing straight from the start: I hate to say this, because I admit that climate change is a global problem and that addressing this requires cooperation in its most international form possible. However, this does not mean that every city and region is in need of the same approach. Let’s be honest, the new urban agenda, along with COP 22 and most of the other gatherings in the past, have never given one concrete and place-specific recommendation. In the light of how to really move to the phase of implementation or how to really undertake action, the lists of bullet points resulting from these conferences are usually not sufficiently downscaled.[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Climate agreements have failed to be the driver of progress in the battle against climate change.[/perfectpullquote]
Until now, the international political climate agreements have been promising in form and idea, but they have failed to be the driver of progress in the battle against climate change. For that, most of its points are just too general and consisting of things that nobody would really disagree with. The real challenge of moving towards a consensus in how to stand up against climate change still remains: how is this list of bullet points further specified to fit local needs and values on city and rural levels?
You may derive from this that I argue that more action is needed than what is achieved by political leaders simply agreeing with each other on paper (and have them repeating this process over and over again). Just imagine that all the money that was spent on the security, organization, transport (etc.) of Habitat I, II, III, COP22 (etc.) – this is a lot of money – would go to the direct empowerment of more locally (i.e. city and rural scale levels) developed bottom-up initiatives and solutions. Or imagine that it would be invested into education. Then people would already realize much better what they can change themselves and how they can bring this change into practice. Naturally, one will also need some degree of steering ‘from above,’ but stating that the climate agreements until now have been successful is giving a one-sided view of their potential.
Right now it is a fact that the biggest part of the countries that can be held most accountable for global warming are experiencing relatively little consequences. For clearance, by these countries I mean mainly the OECD-countries that keep claiming that every international climate agreement has been an unprecedented success. In the last few decades, these same OECD-countries (34 altogether) caused 11 times as many CO2 emissions than 53 African countries combined (while their joint populations and surface areas are comparable ).
At the same time, the countries in the regions that are economically, politically and geologically less resilient can feel the increasingly severe effects already coming through. We have had water scarcity in Bolivia; we have had extreme weather events jeopardizing harvests in Costa Rica and Nicaragua; and in the highly anticipated ‘Before the Flood’ we saw Mr. DiCaprio visiting fields in India and Bangladesh where a halving of the normal annual rainfall destroyed all crops. In these regions of the world, the new urban agenda is met with cynicism. And it should be clear why: too many contexts are incomparable and there is a much more urgent need for place-specific, small-scale and localized solutions.
In the spring of 2016, I went to Quito myself to find such a practically engaged solution on city-level (and to write my Master thesis). In a second part of this article, I will discuss the research that I conducted there on climate change, water management and water governance.
— To be continued —