RIO DE JANEIRO – While squabbling between rich and poor countries casts a pall over the upcoming United Nations' Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, the world's mayors said Tuesday that they were already taking real, measurable action to stave off environmental disaster and preserve natural resources for future generations.
The C40 grouping of mayors from 58 megacities around the globe estimated that the nearly 5,000 measures they've already undertaken to fight global warming could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over a billion tons by 2030. That's the equivalent of the combined annual emissions of Mexico and Canada, said C40 chair and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"Cities have recognized the responsibility to act. We haven't waited for our national governments to go first," Bloomberg told participants at a C40 conference in Rio de Janeiro. The event was taking place on the eve of the Rio+20, the United Nations' three-day-long mega-conference on sustainable development, which is expected to bring some 50,000 people to Rio over the coming days.
U.N. officials and country negotiators said Tuesday that they hammered out a final draft of the summit's end declaration that world leaders are expected to officially sanction on Friday. Governments' quibbling over long-standing deadlock issues like technology transfers from rich to poor nations slowed talks and resulted in what environmental groups decried as a watered-down document that makes virtually no advances on what was agreed upon at the original Rio conference in 1992.
Again and again, Bloomberg stressed the contrast between the paralysis of national governments and the agility of municipal authorities, which he said were up to meeting the social and environmental challenges of the 21st century.
"We don't have the luxury of just sitting back and talking about the problems because on a whole range of critical action, the buck stops at city hall," said Bloomberg, adding that cities are key players in the fight against global warming because about 75 percent of global emissions take place within city limits.
"We aren't arguing with each other over reduction targets, we're making progress individually and collectively to improve our cities and the planet," he told journalists on a conference call ahead of Tuesday's event. He added that two-thirds of the C40 initiatives to combat climate change were financed solely out of municipal budgets, with no funds from national governments.
Some of the projects already under way include Paris' rental bike and electric car programs, Bogota's electric taxis, Los Angeles' use of more efficient bulbs LED in its street lights, and the improved solid waste collection initiatives by New Delhi, Lagos and Mexico City.
Open air landfills are major sources of methane released by decomposing trash, but because it dissipates from the atmosphere much more quickly than carbon dioxide, reducing methane emissions could significantly slow global warming, Bloomberg said.
With the volume of garbage expected to double in the next 15 years, improving landfills is a top priority for the C40 cities, Bloomberg said. He announced a partnership with the Clean Air Coalition, which will provide technical assistance to help C40 cities improve their waste management.
The C40 already works with the Clinton Climate Initiative on global warming issues, and the former U.S. President Bill Clinton was beamed in via video conference to address the participants.
"When I first began working on climate change more than two decades ago, a (projected one billion ton reduction) would never have been thought of as possible," Clinton said. "Today mayors are showing that the work can be done, all over the world, from Bogota to Istanbul to Seoul."
During the conference, host city Rio de Janeiro was hailed as a model of sustainable development for recent efforts including this month's closure of a giant open-air landfill on the banks of the city's hyper-polluted Guanabara Bay.
But the significant challenges still facing this seaside metropolis of 9 million were underscored by the absence at Tuesday's conference of the U.S. Environmental Protection Administrator Lisa Jackson, who missed the conference because she was stuck in Rio's notorious gridlock.
Founded in 2005, the C40 now includes megacities on six continents. Its North American member cities include Austin, Houston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and New Orleans.