Last month, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) in Brazil adjourned with disappointment hanging thickly in the smoggy air. Three days of meetings and seminars had produced yet another futile environmental policy paper.
The conference did nothing to overcome the impasse between the world's nations, which for months have been incapable of coming to a consensus over concrete goals on improving the environment. Instead, gathered in the spectacular city of Rio de Janeiro, they had to suffice with rehashing the target goals already set in earlier treaties.
The paper in Rio was titled "The Future We Want." It was 53 pages long – 238 paragraphs in total – and considered a washout. The environmental organizations, as well as some of the heads of state and NGOs who had traveled to Brazil for the conference, all considered it a failure of political will in the field of environmental policy.
It looks as though the international stage is just no place for promoting environmental change. In the local realm, though, all across the globe, there are practical policies being put into place that can effect real change.
Take, for example, the spread of urbanization. As cities swell, their municipalities are getting frustrated waiting for national governments to implement necessary environmental policies. They are choosing to instead go at it alone, doing what it takes to improve their surrounding environment and the quality of life for their citizens.
While in Rio, the United Nations Environment Program and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives – Local Governments for Sustainability passed around a report. It detailed 30 different municipal case studies, including those in Israel. Many of the projects had been both a boon to the environment and the economy. Here are just a few of these local success stories for urban green initiatives, which span the globe.
Reykjavik, Iceland: Saved $800,000 by cleaning up its environmental act
Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, knew that the cleaning products used in its municipal buildings were toxic. So it launched a two-pronged plan. First, it cut down on the hazardous chemicals and replaced them where it could.
Second, it analyzed its cleaning programs, and realized that the municipality was actually scrubbing up more than necessary, wasting money through overuse and also unnecessarily exposing its employees to extra cleaning chemicals. It had squeaky-cleaned itself into an environmental hazard!
So, beginning in 2009, Reykjavik's department of municipal contracts added environmental criteria to its contract tenders. Before publicizing the tenders, the department organized a "cleaning survey" that determined the extent of cleaning services needed to prevent "over-cleaning" and wasted resources.
By 2011, they had slashed their cleaning costs in half, saving $770,000 and significantly reducing the presence of chemicals in municipal buildings. Reykjavik was greener, cleaner, and had even managed to pad its bottom line.
Yokohama, Japan: Chipping in for open spaces
Yokohama, a city of 3.7 million residents, is ringed by forests and crop fields. But over the past few years, the city's growth has come at the expense of its green lung, with urban sprawl cutting directly into its green spaces. Between 2004 and 2009, Yokohama's surrounding foliage withered by a full 15 percent.
Fewer open expanses meant fewer recreational areas, as well as a loss of scenery. Biological diversity took a hit. Ten thousand city residents, eager to save their trees, took part in a city referendum and agreed to a token hike in property taxes. The negligible per-person levy amount dredged up enough cash to finance a $29-billion-per-year green spaces incentives plan for those who purchase property that includes open space.
Following the plan's implementation, the amount of land set aside for preservation increased from 100 dunams (25 acres) to 880 dunams (217 acres) per year. That's a lot of wide open space, created from just a tiny tax.
Tokyo, Japan: Green credits exchange
The municipality of Tokyo made a disturbing discovery: A mere one percent of its commercial and industrial sector buildings were responsible for 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions within the city. So the city took a page from the U.N. greenhouse gas credits plan. It restricted greenhouse gas emissions within its borders while also drafting a plan that let businesses trade emission reduction credits in for cash. Call it going green for green.
Money talks, and extra-clean businesses that get below the target level know they can trade their surplus to those that are more polluting. By 2014, Tokyo is hoping for a six to eight percent reduction in municipal greenhouse gas emissions. By 2020, it wants that number to jump to 25 percent.
Lida, Japan: Not waiting for solar
The Japanese city of Lida is all about solar. Tired of waiting for private entrepreneurs or the national government to get the sun-powered ball rolling, the city is going at it alone, raising $9.5 million to finance 162 solar panel installations across the grid.
The solar panels were installed on public buildings as well as private homes. Lida residents have jumped on the bandwagon. Today, approximately 3.6 percent of homes in the city have photo-voltaic power panels on their roofs.
Thirty percent of the homes within city limits also now have solar-powered water boilers as well, allowing them to harness clean energy while they get clean.
Stirling, Australia. Four types of grass, with four ways to water them
Australia, like Israel, suffers from drought and water shortages. In the western
Australian city of Stirling, city leaders wondered how to solve the problem of keeping the city's parks and gardens green when water levels were low.
The city divided its green spaces into four different categories: high-quality grass (for intensive use, such as soccer fields), medium-quality grass (for less intensive recreational use, like picnics), generic public spaces and ecological spaces (like local gardens).
Each grass earned a different watering method. Areas in the first two categories got the most water, generic spaces received less and ecological areas, hardly any.
The result? A 30 percent drop in annual municipal water consumption.
Växjö, Sweden: Local celebs go green
You could call the 82,000 denizens of this Swedish city environmental pioneers.
Way back in 1996, the local government pledged that by 2050 it would end its reduction on fossil fuels. By 2008, 56 percent of all energy consumption in the city came from local renewable energy resources, 87 percent of heating energy was produced by burning waste and local lumber and 66 percent of electricity was produced using renewable resources.
In 2010, the city got even more ambitious, pushing forward its date of total fossil fuel independence to 2050. In line with this goal, Växjö began installing photo-voltaic solar panels on the rooftops of public buildings and at the same time encouraged the public to cut down on their energy use.
They enlisted the help of local Växjö celebrities and business figures, who set personal environmental goals and allowed the public to track their progress. They used bicycles and public transport, cut back on meat and even participated in a two-week total spending ban. Call it The Biggest (Fossil Fuel) Loser.
Rizhao, China: $500 million for environmentally friendly urban planning
Rizhao, a city along the coast of China's Shandong Peninsula, has seen its population explode in recent years. Because China's spiraling growth has already had serious environmental consequences, Rizhao's leading policymakers decided to plan out the city's future development and have already sunken $500 million into implementing the plan.
The urban planners set aside space for two green corridors to divide the city into nature-linked halves. Additionally, it was decided that the city's seaside would be preserved for recreational use only.
As a result, the amount of green space in the city rose from 10.5 square meters per person in 2000 to 19 square meters in 2010. Rizhao also increased its appeal to domestic tourists, with more than 20 million visitors flocking to the city since 2008.
Additional environmental initiatives cut greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality. Between 2006 and 2010, sulfur oxide emissions in the city dropped 24 percent and all other emissions dropped by 19 percent. And all this happened while the population, and the economy, continued to grow.
Cost of turning an Israel shade more green, NIS 50 million
Israeli cities also had their moment to shine in Rio. The report specifically highlighted the technological upgrade of central Israel's major sewage treatment plant as a global precedent for sewage treatment.
More city councils in Israel are embracing environmental initiatives. The government's goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020, but much of the nation remains a concrete jungle. That goal, while laudable, is likely unattainable.
To get there, a mid-sized city would need to spend at least NIS 50 million, says Geocartography Knowledge Group Managing Director Dr. Rina Degani. The money would cover expenditures for energy efficiency, trash removal, recycling and landscape projects.
This figure excludes the costs of crucial investments in transportation infrastructure that would also be required and will likely total NIS 220 million, taken from the national budget.
According to Geocartography, the first Energy Ministry budget allotments to fund greenhouse gas emission reduction projects totaled NIS 49 million in grants. Still, according to the research, Israel will likely only achieve about half of the reduction it is hoping for by 2020.
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