A Green Agenda for Cities

The United Nations, so accustomed to thinking globally, turned its hopes this year to local governments" efforts to clean up the environment. More than 70 mayors and other local leaders from around the world have signed the Urban Environmental Accords, 21 ambitious—but non-binding—sustainability goals. They pledged specifically to work toward getting 10 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2012, extending public transit to within a quarter mile of all city residents by 2015, reducing greenhouse gases by 25 percent by 2030 and achieving zero municipal waste by 2040. Other measures address sprawl, air quality, access to clean water and open space.

The agreement’s authors call it a purposeful end-run around the intransigence of national governments, especially the United States. The June 5 signing in San Francisco marked the first time a U.S. city hosted World Environment Day.

"There are more than 400 treaties in place on every imaginable aspect of the human environment, and probably two or three are well implemented," said Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. "The environment is a big issue if you’re living in dirty air, if you’re drinking dirty water and if your bus never comes on time. But on the national level there isn’t accountability. People who live in a city have pride of ownership."

The mayors exchanged best practices. Lord Mayor John So of Melbourne, Australia proposed green-building standards. Mayor Kang Sang-Joo of Seogwipo City, South Korea is buying private land to create parks. Mayor John S. Kizito of Kampala, Uganda wants to plant a tree in every garden.

Mayor Ken Livingstone of London said his "congestion charge" for driving downtown was "the only thing I did in my political life that turned out better than I hoped it would." Even Hummer-owning California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger greened his rhetoric by declaring that with regard to global warming, "the debate is over" and "the time for action is now."

The accords provided a boost to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who the following week in Chicago earned unanimous approval from the U.S. Conference of Mayors for a resolution urging both the federal and local governments to meet or beat greenhouse-gas reduction goals in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.

Despite some aid pledges, leaders from the developing world said they are desperate for financial assistance. "We will not be able to implement all of them," says Themba Sikhutshwa, a city councilor in Cape Town, South Africa. "Poverty is the most important thing on our agenda."