When checking my friends’ facebook updates this week, an old news regarding my home city, Montería, being awarded previously this year as the Earth Hour National Capital for Colombia popped out (Elespectador.com, 2014). After checking it, I became curious about the criteria to select the winners -especially because the awards are related to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)’s programs to develop sustainable cities. According to their website, the evaluation criteria is stated as follows:
“An international jury of experts will be looking for cities that have already recognized the climate challenge, and begun to measure and report their emissions. Awarded cities will also show a commitment to innovative, ambitious and participation based initiatives that bring the city closer to a 100% renewable and sustainable future. How cities are advancing the low carbon agenda at pace, and demonstrating a clear, strategic connection between actions and targets will be critical factors in the evaluation process.” (Global WWF, 2014a)
Moreover, I started wondering about their concept of sustainable cities, so I continued on researching: The Earth Hour City Challenge is referenced as a leading movement encouraging cities to address climate change issues through the implementation of community-driven initiatives related to renewable energy and clean technologies. The program recognizes the need to accelerate action and to demonstrate that changes can be made when there is enough commitment; and its interest is to promote sustainable development as the norm for policy making in cities. Over 160 cities from 14 countries joined this years’ competition, duplicating the number compared with last years’ one (Global WWF, 2014b).
A lot of questions were raised during my research, the main ones were related to the definition of sustainable cities and the appropriateness of giving a global award without clarifying and recognizing the different types of challenges cities face in order to fulfill sustainable development goals. Earth Hour City Challenge awards are related to decreasing CO2 emissions of urban centers through energy transition, but I consider that a city should look for fulfilling a wider range of criteria to be considered sustainable.
The “problem” can be related, again, to the level of abstraction of the definition of sustainability given by the Brundtland Commission: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Consequently, a wide range of economic, demographic, institutional, social, environmental and cultural goals can be claimed as supporting cities transition towards sustainability even when they can have conflictive outcomes when looking to the global picture. For example, when the waste generation and resource use in one city is decreased by importing goods which production would increase both, this action just translates the environmental issues to somewhere else and do not address the root of the problem: the sustainable side of consumption.
Furthermore, there is another conflicting aspect to take into consideration: the inherent difference in societal needs among cities according to their level of development, and the environmental footprint they are generating. Thus, it would be difficult to assess cities on level of ambition and impact without looking carefully to their local context, external impact and limitations. Moreover, there is a wide range of problems that can be addressed when referring to sustainable development and the restraints in data collection make difficult to perform useful comparisons. In this context, an advantage of events like the Earth Hour City Challenge can be easily identified: it pushes cities toward measuring their impact, thus increasing the quantity and quality of the data to be analyzed.
On the other hand, Satterthwaite (1997) addressed the importance of measuring the transfer of environmental costs to both: the inhabitants and ecosystems surrounding the city, and to people and ecosystems beyond the city-region, including their transfer into the future. Afterwards, he referred to the limitations of city-level sustainability plans regarding the transfer of environmental costs as local authorities have a restricted influence to the area of their city. At this point, it is necessary to address the importance of cooperation at regional, national and international level to achieve sustainable development goals. However, this coordination with other cities or regions receiving the impact is not easy, especially if sustainability does not have the same priority level on their agendas.
In conclusion, after this line of reflection, certain points became clear regarding sustainable cities awards. Firstly, the use of the word sustainable on them needs to be justified or related to the specific challenge cities are trying to overcome to fulfill one of the many sustainability goals they have (the reason they are awarded for). Secondly, these events promote data gathering among cities, key point to perform useful analysis to improve global overall knowledge about sustainability challenges in cities. Thirdly, these events do promote a sense of urgency and achievement, but we need to wonder towards what. It can be considered true that local contributions would lead to the global achievement of sustainability goals; however, if from the beginning of the process the urge for cooperation and the awareness of possible environmental costs’ transfer is not on top of the discussion, much damage can be done to the collective construction of sustainable development.
Finally, I think the global focus needs to change from sustainable cities to sustainable urban societies in order to achieve global sustainable development goals. This means focusing challenges towards generating policies and technologies capable to influence human behaviors to redefine how city consumers, companies and governments contribute to sustainable development.
Elespectador.com. (March 28, 2014). Montería ganó premio como la 'Ciudad Sostenible del Planeta'. Retrieved from http://www.elespectador.com/noticias/medio-ambiente/monteria-gano-premio-ciudad-sostenible-del-planeta-articulo-483480
Global WWF. (2014a). Earth Hour City Challenge. Retrieved on december 1, from http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/cities/earth_hour_city_challenge/
Global WWF. (2014b). Evaluation criteria - Earth Hour City Challenge. Retrieved on december 1, from http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/cities/earth_hour_city_challenge/criteria_and_jury/
Satterthwaite, D. (1997). Sustainable Cities or Cities that Contribute to Sustainable Development?. Urban Studies (Vol. 34 No. 10), 1667-1691. doi: 10.1080/0042098975394