As the talks in Durban lurch towards failure, we should remember that when it comes to effective policies on greenhouse gases and the climate, national governments will never be agents for real change. All they seem to be able to do is set “targets” for reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Or they pass regulations on automobile emissions.
Or they latch onto symbolic policies – like switching light bulbs – which are good for their image.
Worse, big national governments, as centers of power, are the targets of lobbyists for special interests who are making money off of industries that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide. A recent report by Rena Steinzer for the Center for Progressive Reform shows how a White House agency regularly waters down environmental regulations
for industries in the US.
Not all national governments are this bad. Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden have passed nationwide policies that lowered their emissions substantially in the last 20 years. (Remember, though, three of these four countries have fewer people than big cities. Scale plays a role.)
Meanwhile, local governments are moving ahead. (www.iclei.org) Most of the world’s largest cities have formed an organization to lower greenhouse gases on their own, without waiting for national governments to act. They’re called the C40, but there’s 58 of them now. Their website lists their tangible accomplishments. (www.c40.org)
Thousands of other cities and towns have taken similar initiatives, including a network of so-called Transition Towns. They are small enough to make some really dramatic changes in their carbon emissions – some of them are neighbourhoods within large cities. They are co-operative and participatory and are not carrying out policies legislated from above. (www.transitionnetwork.org)
Instead of setting targets, local governments act. They zone development that makes car use unnecessary, frustrating, or even illegal. They pass bylaws that require green roofs on flat buildings. They specifically encourage urban farming. They build sewage systems that use micro-organisms and plants to turn poop and even industrial
toxins into drinking water. Some of them recycle 60, 70, even 80 percent of their solid waste. In a few municipalities, most of residents’ energy bills consist of payments on loans they received from their local utilities, loans that enabled them to make their
housing so efficient they hardly use any energy at all.
Can we stop wasting our precious energy on international posturing and focus on direct local action?