The Green Column #31

Sustainability: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

August 17, 2010—The first World Summit on Sustainable Development (1992) in Rio de Janeiro produced the Agenda 21 manifesto and other international goals for the protection of the planet.

The second World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002) produced the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG), but little new optimism for real global success in achieving the dual goals of the summit, namely, ensuring that economic growth and environmental protection work together, not at odds. It seems that even now, less than two years until the third summit in 2012, the leaders of the global community of nation-states have not yet developed the political will to lead the people and the globalizing economies into a state of balance. Thus the early optimism for Johannesburg may even turn to regressive, economics driven behavior from the previous two global summit conferences.

In its State of the World 2004 publication, the U.S.-based Worldwatch Institute reported that the world had begun to respond to the calls of the Rio conference, but only “tentatively and unevenly.” The authors observed that, “Steps in the 1990’s toward a more just and ecologically resilient world were too small, too slow, or too poorly rooted.” There are bright spots, even though many national leaders seem not to care about the principles of sustainability. Citizen awareness and concern is growing, however mostly at the local level, and many business leaders are discovering that good economics can be sustained, and even advanced, along with social and environmental improvements. Some units of governments, too, at all levels are reorienting their policies and regulations to support the principles of sustainability.

The United Nations’ Development Program (UNDP) is becoming more influential in expanding people’s choices to lead the lives they value, especially choices that foster a long and healthy life, access to education, a decent standard of living, and participation in community life—while strongly advocating for the conservation of resources. And, the U.N. HABITAT Program has become the world’s leading resource for web-based information on global activities and best practices in sustainable development, now focusing on a new World Urban Campaign for Sustainability.

In assessing the slow governmental progress toward the goals of the Earth Summits, the numerous broken or unfulfilled treaties between nations—and now the low level of expectations for the future global environmental summits—it appears that the action that will matter most is local action. In any event, numerous cities, neighborhoods, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and individual citizens have assumed the most effective leadership roles for sustainable development in the vacuum of uncoordinated global action by national governments. For instance, the American Institute of Architects found, in 2007, that there were more than 90 cities with recently created municipal Green Building Programs throughout the U.S.

Such local initiatives are emblematic of the desire by local leaders to organize and focus local resources on making our towns and cities not only safe, healthy, economically viable, attractive places to live, but sustainable in these characteristics for the benefit of our children, our grand children and beyond.

Fortunately, the mayors of both Lincoln and Omaha have demonstrated their foresight for leading the region into a sustainable future by establishing offices of Sustainability Coordination. The two coordinators have had an early success by collaborating in the writing of a proposal to the Department of Energy for a green building program that will focus on retrofits of residential and commercial buildings in a designated zone in each city. Their successful proposal will bring $10 million in American Recovery Act funds to the two cities, as one of only 25 U.S. projects awarded.

The ultimate goals of these locally focused projects are to enhance the conservation of energy consumption, to reduce the carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and to stimulate the market for and employment in a more active retrofitting of buildings as an industry. The pursuit of these goals will be played out locally over the next three years.

A related, but separately organized local effort to watch for is the establishment of an Eco Products and Services Center. With sponsorship from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, the City of Lincoln, the Lincoln Electric System, and Speedway Motors this new eco-design center will be established at EcoStores Nebraska, 530 West P Street in Lincoln. The goal of the center is to exhibit and provide information on as many truly “green” products and services as possible that are currently marketed in the Lincoln/Omaha metro region. The center will provide the property owner/consumer with a “one-stop” aggregation of reliable retrofit and building information on locally available products and services. The center’s focus will be on conservation of energy and natural resources, waste reduction, and reduction of green-house gases. The Eco Products and Services Center should be open in the fall of 2010.

A third local initiative is the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities production of four statewide conferences to focus on the sustainability of Nebraska’s key natural resources: water, land, energy, materials, and food. These free, public access conferences are sponsored by the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund, the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority and other community patrons. The conferences will be scheduled in Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney, and Scottsbluff with the first to occur in November of 2010.

A sustainable community is a community of local volunteers and sustainability leaders. Perfect example: the recently completed, highly successful and socially rewarding Special Olympics. Congratulations, Lincoln!

© Lincoln Green by Design