What does Earth System Governance offer for cities?

Climate & Natural resources02 Dec 2009Sara Hughes

Today was the conference kick-off – and the excitement in the air this morning was palpable. Old friends were meeting and greeting over coffee, name badges were being handed out by the dozen, and the sheep living in the field behind the hotel seemed to be taking it all in with wide eyes. I entered the scene with a search image of my own: signs of academic inquiry helping to solve environmental problems.

The morning’s plenary session focused in part on defining and structuring the way environmental governance challenges are approached by researchers in the coming decade. The ‘Five A’s’ of earth system governance – architecture, agency, adaptiveness, accountability and allocation – were proposed as organizing concepts and are the foundation of the Earth System Governance Science Plan. What was particularly interesting were the ‘cross-cutting themes’ of power, knowledge and scale – issues deemed to be universally pervasive in the dynamics of earth system governance.

Thinking about common complaints about the difficulty of environmental policymaking in the media, from activists, from Congress, and from my colleagues, these cross-cutting themes seem to resonate. Powerful interests often block efforts to improve water conservation, protect wetlands, develop alternative energy supplies, or support sustainable agriculture. And when these same interests change their position, for example BP decides to invest in biofuels or farmers decide to invest in water efficiency devices, we often see fast action and big changes. However, we still need to know how these power centres can be overcome, moved somewhere else, or transformed.

Some of the day’s presentations focused on cities and their environments. Cities depend on much more than the resources located within their borders. The rivers, wetlands, forests, pastures and beaches that surround cities provide invaluable services. However, the processes that cities use to plan their impact on these resources rarely account for such services. Another problem that was highlighted by presenters was the inequitable distribution of resources within cities, such as access to housing and human rights. These allocation patterns can lead people, families and communities to be highly vulnerable to their environments, and particularly vulnerable to any changes that may arise in the future. The adaptation strategies people in cities have are often not of their own making.

What solutions were offered today for the problems cities face? Talking to some of the presenters and participants, one solution to the encroachment of cities on their resource base is to find ways to insulate and institutionalize the planning process in ways that ensure sustainable and compact urban growth. In certain settings, urban planners may be powerful actors in determining the sustainability of a city and could be targeted as agents of change. But they, like all of us, need incentives to do difficult jobs like denying permits, enforcing zoning regulations, and supporting new projects. Leadership is critical. For example, one researcher found that in Ecuador, the municipal leaders of a small watershed literally hold the key that turns on and off the water supply. Can we find similar ‘key holders’ in larger cities as well?