The Outcomes – 2011 Gwangju UEA Summit

Mayors and city officials from 80 cities met in Gwangju’s Kim Dae Jung Convention Center last month. Amongst lavish lunches and trash bins full of small empty single-use plastic water bottles, they came together to pledge to steer their cities onto greener, more resource efficient, and lower-carbon trajectories.

Today over half the population of the world lives in cities that contribute 75 percent of CO2 emissions and 60-80 percent of the world’s total energy consumption. Cities are hubs of innovation and social change. How appropriate, therefore, that the greener cities conference, or UEA (Urban Environmental Accords), was established to improve the efficiency of cities. The bi-annual summit considers energy efficiency, waste management, transport, water management, and habitat protection.

A lavish affair, the Gwangju Metropolitan City spared no expense to show delegates and representatives a good time. On Wednesday they experienced Korean culture at Mugaksa Temple, enjoyed Korean cuisine, and sampled local delicacies. The closing ceremony on Friday saw a modern dance performance and a private opera show, French wine, and a five-course meal. Interestingly vegetarian faire was only offered upon request and was not the default meal choice even though an expert from Belgium spoke at one session, advocating the benefits to individuals and to cities of eating a vegan/vegetarian diet.

The three day summit brought together city mayors, leaders of environmental organizations, and representatives from NGOs, including the United Nations Environmental Protection Agency, UN Habitat, and the Earth Policy Institute. Together they began the process of developing a metric to measure and report urban sustainability, named the Urban Environmental Evaluation Index.  The index will be used to measure the sustainability of participating cities. To be completed by 2013, the index will be used to award a ‘Lowest Carbon City’ prize which will be accompanied by a cash reward. This should act as an incentive for cities within developed and developing countries to reduce environmental degradation and to put into place policies, regulations and innovative market mechanisms to protect their environments.  The ideas and enthusiasm are positive, yet the practicality of measuring such technical components is very difficult. How do you calculate a city’s food waste or the loss of carbon when uprooting a tree?

Another goal of the summit was for leaders to commit to creating Clean Development Mechanisms [CDMs] under the guidance of the UN climate convention. The reduced carbon emissions of one city may be sold to another if it exceeds its carbon allotment, similar to the European carbon trading scheme [EU-ETS]. And like the EU-ETS there are many kinks remaining to be worked out. For example, under the CDM a developed country which has exceeded its carbon targets can establish a carbon reduction scheme in a developing country. But again the measurements are dubious as are the benefits to the environment. Recently a scandal ensued in Indonesia where an ancient forest was destroyed so a palm oil forest could be planted for carbon credits.

There are also security problems in the financial trading scheme. Last year millions of dollars worth of carbon credits were stolen from the EU-ETS registry. Legal battles as to who will bear the financial loss are ongoing.

The Urban Clean Development Mechanism and Evaluation Index is set to be improved and elaborated on by the UNEP and other concerned parties before the next UEA summit in 2013. Although in its infancy there are reasons to be excited that leaders are showing an interest in protecting the urban environment, but how effective and how quickly these changes can be implemented is yet to be seen.

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