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Diplomacy in Action

The Road to Rio+20: International Goals and Subnational Actions

Reta Jo Lewis
Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs 
ICLEI World Congress 2012
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
June 15, 2012


I would like to start by thanking ICLEI for highlighting the importance of cities in the creation of a sustainable future. Today, I want to identify the opportunity for Rio+20 to highlight these issues and to enhance efforts on urban sustainability moving forward.

Urbanization is occurring at an unprecedented rate, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Fifty-two percent of the Earth’s population now lives in cities. Every week one million people move to cities. Continued rapid urbanization will lead to three billion new urban dwellers. This rate of change places enormous challenges on capacity and resources, but also presents opportunities to realize synergies across social, environmental, and economic objectives. It will not be possible to achieve global sustainability without sustainable cities.

Rio+20 is about the future. The United States believes that Rio+20 should be a different kind of meeting, one that transforms the multilateral approach to sustainable development and incorporates its concepts across all sectors. It is our hope that Rio+20 will be truly inclusive of a broad collection of stakeholders, including state and local officials, civil society and the private sector.

In the U.S. submission to the Rio outcome document, we highlighted the importance of urbanization in the context of a Built Environment. We noted that cities, as major consumers of resources, are also centers for job creation, making them the front line of a green economy. Opportunities abound to modernize service delivery. This includes: deploying green technologies and services; prioritizing green infrastructure and buildings; protecting and restoring green spaces; creating more housing opportunities; reducing emissions, seeking greater efficiency in resource use and waste processing; and making more sustainable urban system and land use decisions.

Perhaps it is a bias based on my current position, but I always say that the state and local level is where cool things happen first – especially on the sustainability front. We see so much leadership from state and local governments, and we continue to rely on you to help chart the course for meaningful progress. We believe that sustainability is not just a topic for national governments and international organizations, but is also, and maybe even more so, an issue for government at all levels, as well as for the private sector and civil society.

Cities are where the “rubber meets the road” in terms of concrete, practical policies and best practices to support sustainable development. We need to utilize all of the tools at our disposal, and harness the capabilities of the private sector and civil society, if we are to see these innovative policies expand to meet the needs of growing global urban populations.

States and cities do not face a choice between green and growth: they CAN and MUST pursue both. There is no “one-size-fits-all” model for implementing sustainability, and strategies will differ across regions as they do across countries. However, we firmly believe that local government leadership bears the fundamental responsibility to support urban sustainability.

Cities across the United States have adopted comprehensive sustainability programs, and in the process are transforming themselves to greener and more efficient urban centers. Increasingly, cities are using sustainability management systems to prioritize investment decisions that enhance their “triple bottom line” – be it large metropolitan areas like New York City’s “PlaNYC” or Chicago’s “Climate Action Plan,” or smaller cities like Fort Collins, Colorado’s “Sustain Fort Collins” or Austin, Texas’ “Climate Action Plan.” This disciplined approach is working – with savings ranging from $2 billion through New York’s Green Infrastructure Plan to $500,000 saved by Fort Collins’ pavement recycling program.

An example of our international efforts to cooperatively address the urbanization challenge is the Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability or JIUS with Brazil, announced last March by President Obama and President Rousseff.

This bilateral public-private initiative will provide a showcase for financial, physical, and digital innovation that is transferable to cities in the United States and around the world. The United States and Brazil, by capturing measurable economic, environmental, and health benefits of green investment, aim to show leadership in the importance of sustainable city scale investment in research and development, clean energy and energy efficiency, and sustainable urban planning.

A fundamental message that the United States is bringing to Rio is the importance of good governance if we are to achieve a sustainable future. We need governance at all levels to be open and transparent, with robust channels for public participation, to better engage citizens and build new networks across all sectors of our societies. We encourage governments to adapt and implement policies for access to information, and to work to build public/private partnerships so that the achievements in building a sustainable future will be long-lasting.

Rio+20 is an opportunity to take advantage of momentum around sustainability globally, as well as the incredible progress we have made in technology and information in the last 20 years, to engage in a new and more inclusive way on these issues.

Rio+20 should be a modern conference that sets a new standard for encouraging broad stakeholder participation. Governments, businesses, academic institutions, and civil society (including in particular women and youth) all have a stake in better integrating the social, economic, and environmental pillars of sustainable development.

We are going into Rio with a clearer understanding than ever of how all of our sectors are interrelated and interdependent. The Rio+20 focus on “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” is an acknowledgement that we cannot address each challenge separately and expect to create lasting solutions. We need a holistic approach

Finally, let’s make Rio a celebration of the new and innovative technologies that not only bring us closer as a community, but can help us solve global challenges in ways unimaginable 20 years ago. We have evolving means to stimulate international action that go beyond traditional models for global cooperation centered on government-to-government meetings and formal institutions. The use of social media and connection technologies is making the world more inclusive. These advances can help achieve more rapid action on sustainable development, at lower cost, with more inclusive stakeholder participation ranging from women, youth, and civil society groups to nongovernment organizations, small businesses, large industries, and private sector finance institutions.

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