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International Influences on City Sustainability Plans

By: Gail Karlsson

August 01, 2008

Having spent the past fifteen years involved with United Nations processes and agencies, I sometimes have to wonder whether anything concrete ever comes out of all these meetings, summits and frameworks for action. Of course, little can happen if the government officials attending the meetings don't take them seriously. And certainly there is much to lament about the ineffectiveness of UN bureaucracies. But I would like to point out several ways that UN activities have — over time — had an influence on local government actions in New York City.

The UN Earth Summit and Agenda 21
I first became aware of the UN's role in environmental matters when I was working in a New York City law firm and subscribed to the International Environment Reporter. Some of our work involved foreign companies and transactions, so I had to educate myself about environmental laws and issues outside the US. What I became most interested in, however, was planning for the so-called 'Earth Summit', the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The outcomes of the UN's Earth Summit included international treaties to control climate change and protect the world's biological diversity, plus a detailed, forty-two chapter plan of action for a global transition to sustainable development in the 21st century called 'Agenda 21'. The climate change and biodiversity treaties were signed by the first President Bush, and the climate change treaty was later strengthened by international adoption of the Kyoto Protocol — though without the support of the United States.

Meanwhile, only a few people in the US paid attention to Agenda 21, or the concept of sustainable development — with its three interconnected goals of economic development, environmental conservation, and social equity. Although President Clinton established a President's Council on Sustainable Development in 1993, its members served primarily in a low-priority advisory role, and the administration never fully endorsed sustainable development as a guide for domestic or international action.

ICLEI and Local Agenda 21 Plans
Some countries, notably Sweden, did embrace the challenge of sustainable development and began to apply it both at the national level and in city planning processes. During the 1990s, almost all Swedish cities adopted 'Local Agenda 21' plans, and some have recently adopted even more ambitious 'zero emissions' policies.

The idea of Local Agenda 21 plans originated with a group called ICLEI, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, which was founded in 1990 in partnership with the UN Environment Programme, in preparation for the Earth Summit. The 178 countries attending the Earth Summit endorsed the idea of a Local Agenda 21 program, and more than 800 municipalities have joined it since then. ICLEI has also started a 'Cities for Climate Protection Campaign' to involve communities throughout the world in a coordinated effort to quantify and reduce their local greenhouse gas emissions.

UN Commission on Sustainable Development
Back in New York City, the term 'sustainable development' was rarely used outside the walls of the UN, even though every year there were meetings of a new Commission on Sustainable Development set up to monitor progress on implementing Agenda 21. I became a regular participant in those meetings, and for several years served as a citizens' representative on the official US delegation. Vice President Al Gore presided over the first session in 1993, and President Clinton came to the fifth anniversary of the Earth Summit, but still, the idea of sustainable development didn't seem to gain any traction within the US government, much less the cities and towns around the country.

Mayor Giuliani certainly had little positive interest in the work of the UN, or sustainable development, so throughout the 1990's there were few possibilities for linking international sustainability concepts with New York City government operations.

ICLEI Greenhouse Gas Inventory
In the spring of 2002, with the new Bloomberg administration in place, I was part of a team from the New York Academy of Sciences' Environmental Science Section that met with members of the Mayor's Office of Environmental Coordination and proposed that they should take advantage of an ICLEI program that would help the city conduct a greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

A commitment to the New York City Greenhouse Gas Inventory project was eventually approved, with support from the Mayor's Office of Environmental Coordination. However, Mayor Bloomberg seemed no more familiar than Mayor Giuliani with the concept of sustainable development, and city officials were reluctant to release the information that had been gathered about greenhouse gas emissions.

The International Olympics Committee and the Mayor's Task Force on Sustainability
Daniel Doctoroff first began promoting the idea of a New York City Olympics in 1996, long before he became Mayor Bloomberg's Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. By May 2004, when New York City made the list of five finalists for hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics, he had already put together a NYC 2012 organization to support the bid. One of the potential benefits to New York would be an opportunity to launch some major new economic development projects. The Olympics plan included revival of the East River waterfront, with construction of an Olympic Village across the river from the United Nations and an aquatics center in Brooklyn, and construction of a West Side Stadium, which was meant to lead to comprehensive redevelopment of the Far West Side of Manhattan. Other projects that were listed as part of the bid included a rowing course in Queens, a velodrome in the South Bronx, a marina along the Atlantic shoreline, an equestrian center in Staten Island, and the refurbishment of a historic armory in Harlem.

Amid a flurry of excitement about new stadiums and infrastructure, it emerged that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had its own version of Agenda 21, and considered sustainability as one of the criteria for its selection of host cities.

Consequently, in November 2004, the NYC2012 committee adopted six Environmental and Sustainability Principles to govern any construction and operations connected with the Olympics, demonstrating their recognition of the IOC's Agenda 21 goals. The committee projected that the New York Olympics would launch a major environmental transformation of the city — accelerating the expansion of parkland and recreational opportunities, reclaiming brownfields, promoting new green buildings and transportation systems, and revitalizing the waterfront. In addition, New York's global media would spread the principles of sustainability throughout the world.

In the same month, Mayor Bloomberg formally designated a Mayor's Task Force on Sustainability charged with coordinating and facilitating the incorporation of environmentally sustainable principles into the city government's planning, operations and policymaking.

Ultimately, the defeat of the West Side Stadium proposal undermined New York's bid for the Olympics, and London won the prize. What happened? Construction of a new Olympic stadium, an essential component of New York's plan for hosting the games, was rejected by the New York State Public Authorities Control Board, in part because of concerns that it would conflict with investments needed to rebuild the devastated World Trade Center site.

At that point the Mayor's Task Force on Sustainability could have found itself defeated as well, but by then the idea of a sustainable future for New York had captured the imagination of Mayor Bloomberg. He was transformed into an outspoken and dedicated proponent for sustainable development, and especially for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

PlaNYC and ICLEI Cities for Climate Protection
On Earth Day 2007, Mayor Bloomberg introduced PlaNYC, an ambitious, multifaceted, 30-year sustainability plan for the city. Also in 2007, the City finally released the results of the greenhouse gas inventory.

After actively embracing the ICLEI Cities for Climate Protection program, in December 2007, Mayor Bloomberg was invited to speak on behalf of ICLEI at the United Nations meeting in Bali that was convened to discuss the post-Kyoto phase of the international climate change treaty. In Bali, the Mayor decried the federal government's lack of participation in the Kyoto Protocol, and urged delegates to work with cities and local governments as an integral part of the emission reduction process.

Can New York Be a Worldwide Model for Sustainability?
New York City is uniquely influential. Internationally, it is widely viewed as 'the capital of the world', in part because it hosts the United Nations. Visiting government ministers and delegations are often inspired by the more attractive aspects of a New York lifestyle. If New York City were to truly embrace sustainable development, it could in fact help spread the principles of sustainability throughout the world — even without the platform of the Olympic Games.

In a number of ways New Yorkers are already models of sustainability — living in smaller spaces than most Americans, and using far less fuel for driving due to an extensive public transportation system and walkable access to neighborhood shops, parks, schools and farmers markets. New York also already has some impressive examples of new green building designs. The biggest challenges will be to reduce energy use in existing buildings, which currently account for almost 80% of New York City's overall energy consumption, and to introduce new low-emission, alternatives for generating heat and electricity.

The UN expects to finalize the provisions for the next stage of the international climate change treaty by the end of 2009. In the meantime, there will be a new US President in January 2009. Hopefully, there will be a new era of US leadership on international and national action to address climate change and other sustainable development issues. But New York isn't waiting for the UN or the federal government to move forward.

Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City Council have already taken some very important steps. In May 2008, the City Council established an Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability as a permanent feature of New York City government. The new office is charged with implementing sustainability programs, and ensuring that the goals and initiatives of PlaNYC endure beyond the current administration. How it performs under the next New York Mayor will depend on how clearly voters and other elected officials understand the urgency, the necessity, and the benefits of local and global action to implement sustainability plans. That's a way we all can have an influence.


Gail Karlsson is an environmental lawyer specializing in international environmental law, energy policy, and sustainable development. She has worked on a number of projects as a consultant to the United Nations Development Programme's Environment & Energy Group, and is the New York City coordinator for the U.S. Citizens Network for Sustainable Development.
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