Wait, wait… Warsaw… a “green capital?” UN Climate Conference… has a chance of being a “success?” Really?
Okay, granted, I am writing this in the middle of what is only the 3rd of 13 days of the COP19 Climate Summit – and the next week and a half could still turn out to prove me utterly, embarrassingly wrong about the Climate Summit. But no, this is not a puff piece nor propaganda. Warsaw definitely has some green achievements and actions of which to be proud, and, depending on how we define success, the UN Climate Conference could turn out to have positive impacts.
Keep reading and I’ll try to explain how, as someone who’s (1) spent most of his career studying how businesses and governments are grappling with (or are complicit in creating) dire ecological problems and (2) close to (but not on the payroll of) the City of Warsaw that the two statements in the title of this piece can be written without completely shattering my credibility.
Let’s start with the annual UN Climate Summit and acknowledging some essential background reality. The worrisome (some would say catastrophic) scenarios predicted in 1972 by MIT computer models and summarized in the classic book, The Limits to Growth, have proven to be accurate: globally, growth in population, consumption, and pollution has continued. So has the degradation of natural systems to support life and provide for human needs and absorb our waste and pollution. As a global civilization, we are not radically, fundamentally changing the ways we provide for our needs and wants. What is likely now? A continuation of overshoot – ongoing mass extinction, the collapse of ecosystems (really, our natural life support systems) and unprecedented and escalating human suffering and death through the rest of this century.
So will one meeting from November 11-23, 2013 significantly change the fate of civilization? Single-handedly, it won’t – no. In fact, a new international agreement just on climate change isn’t even expected – maybe – until 2015’s meeting: COP21. You may have already read critiques of COP19 and the entire UN framework of annual meetings; some call the whole annual exercise farcical. Many critiques make some good points, and they are getting plenty of attention. Yes, there is plenty to criticize.
But COP19 could still prove to be a success. Veterans of these UN conferences point out that besides negotiating a treaty, these meetings serve to exchange views and best practices and foster cooperation between national representatives and other participants. These meetings serve to raise public awareness globally and in each host country – awareness that can alter the political and business climates in individual countries. As with any convention, there are people here (for example, environmental business consultants) for the professional networking opportunities. Academics and researchers are here to present findings and gather data. Activists and the news media are here to keep participants honest and to try to pressure national representatives to make some modicum of progress – which countries sometimes do, albeit unilaterally or as a coalition. Regular participants say that certain characteristics of these climate summits are consistently the same, and that ultimately, as with any convention, gauging their comparative success – or lack thereof – is a subjective question.
Here are things that have been accomplished or will soon happen (at the 19th in a series of annual meetings of representatives of 194 countries). These observations are substantiated by official sources but, perhaps more importantly, confidential conversations with veteran participants in – and observers of – the UN framework meetings:
- the incoming president of the annual conference, (Polish Environmental Minister Korolec seems to be making an effort to engage stakeholders, including the business community (though not everyone is pleased with who represented the views of the business community and the sponsorship of events by certain interests). This may build a stronger consensus and reduce opposition to binding treaty commitments in 2015. Remember how the Bush administration distanced the United States from the Kyoto Protocol? That may be somewhat less likely to happen if the business community continue to be consulted. According to Minister Korolec’s summary, his consultations with business leaders has led, among other things, to calls for future regulatory frameworks to be predictable and for land use and forestry to be considered in ongoing talks (for more, see Incoming President’s Conclusions).
- specifically, to an unprecedented extent, cities and other sub-national political entities will have their voices heard. This has been verified by several people who’ve worked for several years to make sure that cities and sub-national governments are more engaged with the process and substance of the international dialogue of what should be done. It also makes sense because, for lack of an international agreement and often in the absence of national government leadership, cities have taken a leading role in taking action to curb climate damaging activity and adapt to climactic changes. More than half of the planet’s 7 billion people live in cities, we enjoy a greater degree of access and control over city governments than national governments, 90% of cities are in coastal regions and 50% are experiencing the effects of climate change. In short, it is overdue that cities and sub-national governments have their voices heard in international fora such as the annual UN Climate Change Conferences. More on this topic can be read at Local Government Climate Roadmap.
- best practices of cities and sub-national governments will be given recognition and attention. Cites are in the vanguard of taking action. Besides communicating the concerns and desires of cities and subnational governments, the actions and experience of cities will specifically be given attention. Representatives of cities and other sub-national levels of government will discuss actions that they have been taking and their ideas for what should be done with regard to mitigation of the ongoing and worsening climate crisis, and how to adapt to harsh emerging realities. Their conclusions and suggestions will be heard by the national delegations.
- “we can manage what we measure” will be a theme. This is a truism in all areas of human activity, and obvious to anyone who has tried to manage anything. Even if no goals are established for emissions reductions, the very act of measuring and publishing environmental impact data has been shown to work in various contexts related to pollution and waste. Whenever and however and whatever goals are eventually set, the measurement and tracking of emissions will be an essential first step toward achieving them. So propagating the practice of measurement and reporting is vital.
The City of Warsaw provides a perfect illustration of why the themes above make sense. Its recently published 2013 Integrated Sustainability Report is a tangible, positive, replicable best practice by a city related to measurement (press release and document are available in English on the City of Warsaw website as well as in Polish. 95% of the largest 250 corporations on the planet already publish data on their environmental, societal, and economic impacts – but the practice is yet to be widely adopted by public institutions and other non-profit organizations (possibly because private sector actors have felt more pressure to defend their environmental records and role in society than NGOs or public sector entities).
Measuring and reporting environmental, societal, economic, governance, and financial data serves many functions, including encouraging efficiency, improving planning, controlling risk, keeping the trust of investors, branding, and helping to recruit, retain, and boost the morale of employees. However, it also allows for comparisons, benchmarking, and substantively assessing the status and progress of an organization toward achieving a state of long-run sustainability.
Has any city or company on the planet fully adopted a way of functioning that has “zero net impact” on the environment? Some come close, but none seem to be 100% there yet. So what does it even mean to be a “green city?” As one of the first handful of cities to publish any kind of comprehensive accounting of environmental and other impacts, Warsaw is already a green leader in this regard. More literally, Warsaw is 25% green space and the city limits include a national park which is a UNESCO biosphere reserve with thousands of species. The City can take pride in the largest environmental protection investment in European history (its new wastewater treatment plant – something that the widely-recognized green city of Vancouver doesn’t have quite yet, and something that Brussels only somewhat recently completed). Warsaw’s plans include reducing emissions 20% by 2020. The City ranks well in independent rankings of European cities. One more fact to support my characterization of Warsaw as green: its heat-and-electricity cogeneration and distribution system – the 3rd largest in the world – is 33% more efficient than many Western European and American electricity-generating plants (which literally vent off the “waste” heat, rather than using it). While not exactly measures of “being green,” key societal welfare indicators include an almost 50% drop in crime in recent years, more than a 55% drop in road accidents, and almost 11,500 concerts and other cultural events held in 2012 alone.
If cities embraced measuring and publishing data on environmental, societal, and other data on a widespread basis, it could be a critically important step toward incentivizing progress and curbing costly, needless, and destructive negative side effects of how we conduct our daily affairs – including those that are contributing to climate change. This statement is supported by five facts, some of which were alluded to above, namely:
- a majority of the planet’s +7 billion (soon to be 9 billion) people now lives in cities (a recent epochal tipping point),
- we enjoy a greater degree of access to – and control over – local government (compared to national government),
- many energy, water, sewage, waste, transportation, and other infrastructures are managed by municipalities (or other sub-national levels), and, inasmuch as these functions are often outsourced-but-overseen, reporting can involve (and thereby put appropriate constructive pressure) on for-profit infrastructure service companies,
- the long-predicted impacts of climate change are being acutely felt in the world’s cities – especially in major coastal metropolises, providing an impetus for immediate constructive change and adaptation, and
- ambitious goals have been set and significant tangible steps have been taken by cities.
For links to supporting sources for the facts above, please go to Warsaw 2013 Integrated Sustainability Report – and why cities are vital focal points for measurement and action on my website.
Cities and other sub-national units of organization therefore
- are vital foci for change,
- deserve to have their voices heard, and
- should have their readily replicable best practices – including efforts related to measurement – highlighted and propagated.
The 2013 UN Climate Change Conference hopefully will be remembered and applauded for acknowledging and acting upon these realities.
More details about goals and aspirations for the Warsaw COP19 Climate Summit may be found at its website.
Some of you may have read about the emotional opening statement of the Philippine representative, whose brother, in the wake of Supertyphoon Haiyan, was gathering, on that same day, dead bodies in their hometown after three days of not eating. He pledged to go on a fast until actions are decided upon at this UN Climate Summit. In about ten days we’ll know how he has fared. But the big take-away of this article is that, even though the role of COP19 and COP20 are explicitly preparatory meetings on the road to COP21 (and are not even expected to yield a treaty), Warsaw may still be deemed a measured success. In the author’s opinion, for example, if just the best practices of cities in carbon emissions measurement and reporting were to be widely expanded, that could be considered a very positive outcome. For the authors’ updates from the COP19 meeting, please see my website.