Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Road to Rio+20 Reminds Us to Think Globally and Act Locally

Maggie Comstock
Associate, Policy
U.S. Green Building Council

On Monday, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) convened the fourth installment of the Road to Rio+20 series. The series was born out of the need for stakeholder awareness and input in the rapidly approaching Rio+20 conference in June. The main goal of the Summit—the growth of the green economy in the context of poverty alleviation and sustainable development—have implications for each of us. The Road to Rio series seeks to bridge the gap between global conversations on sustainable development and on-the-ground challenges and solutions in urban sectors and the built environment.

Roger Platt and Lawrence Gumbiner
The New York installment of the series, “Exploring the Role of Cities and Buildings in the Green Economy,” coincided with the UNCSD intercessional meeting (or preparatory meeting) underway at the UN Headquarters. Skanska’s flagship offices at the Empire State Building set the stage for a larger than life cast of experts as part of the program. Keynote remarks by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of State Lawrence Gumbiner (seated on the left of the photo), addressed the state of negotiations as well as the goals for it outcome:

 “Rio+20 should be a powerful, aspirational event that inspires a new generation like its predecessor did 20 years ago. To do so, we cannot simply repeat the constructs, negotiating positions and symbols of the past. We must be forward-leaning and inclusive, and utilize all of the technologies and tools available to us in 2012 to assure that not just those present in Rio, but all stakeholders have a voice and can participate.”

The Road to Rio expert panel

The expert panel, moderated by UNEP’s Chief of Sustainable Production and Consumption Arab Hoballah, featured presentations from finance, government, non-profit and philanthropic organizations, all of whom contribute to the development of sustainable cities and green buildings including representatives from New York City’s Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, PNC Bank, the Ford Foundation and C40 Cities. Each of their PowerPoint presentations is available here.

A fundamental component of our “tour” throughout North America includes listening to what you think about Rio+20, what is needed to make the conference more accessible to all, and how its outcomes can be most effective. These recommendations will be compiled into a report which will be made available to delegates, stakeholders, and businesses in the lead-up to Rio +20. So, what have we heard so far?

You have told us that decision-makers should consider green building and building sector resource efficient to be included in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We also need common metrics for transferrable data between cities and other practitioners. Finally, we need to debunk the myth that only major changes (think UN-level) will make a dent in our global emissions. Remember the adage, “Think globally, act locally?” We need to remind our neighbors, friends and families that global goals can only be realized through changes undertaken by each and every one of us, no matter how small. We can’t give up on switching light-bulbs, eating local and driving less. They have benefits at the individual level and, in aggregate, will change the world.


  1. If we agree to “think globally”, it becomes evident that riveting attention on GROWTH could be a grave mistake because we are denying how economic and population growth in the communities in which we live cannot continue as it has until now. Each village's resources are being dissipated, each town's environment degraded and every city's fitness as place for our children to inhabit is being threatened. To proclaim something like, 'the meat of any community plan for the future is, of course, growth' fails to acknowledge that many villages, towns and cities are already ‘built out’, and also ‘filled in’ with people. If the quality of life we enjoy now is to be maintained for the children, then limits on economic and population growth will have to be set. By so doing, we choose to “act locally" and sustainably.
    More economic and population growth are no longer sustainable in many too many places on the surface of Earth because biological constraints and physical limitations are immutably imposed upon ever increasing human consumption, production and population activities of people in many communities where most of us reside. Inasmuch as the Earth is finite with frangible environs, there comes a point at which GROWTH is unsustainable. There is much work to done locally. But that effort cannot reasonably begin without sensibly limiting economic and population growth.
    To quote another source, “We face a wide-open opportunity to break with the old ways of doing the town’s business…..” That is a true statement. But the necessary “break with the old ways” of continuous economic and population growth is not what is occurring. There is a call for a break with the old ways, but the required changes in behavior are not what is being proposed as we plan for the future. What is being proposed and continues to occur is more of the same, old business-as-usual overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, the very activities that appear to be growing unsustainably. More business-as-usual could soon become patently unsustainable, both locally and globally. A finite planet with the size, composition and environs of the Earth and a community with the boundaries, limited resources and wondrous climate of villages, towns and cities where we live may not be able to sustain much longer the economic and population growth that is occurring on our watch. Perhaps necessary changes away from UNSUSTAINABLE GROWTH and toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises are in the offing.
    Think globally while there is still time and act locally before it is too late for human action to make any difference in the clear and presently dangerous course of unfolding human-induced ecological events, both in our planetary home and in our villages, towns and cities.

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