In Economy Watch, Elinor Ostrom points out that research over time has found a variety of overlapping policies at city, regional, national, and international levels are more likely to succeed than single, overarching binding agreements. She says:
“Inaction in Rio would be disastrous, but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake. We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: the oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways, and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life, including seven billion humans, to thrive.
“We have never had to deal with problems of the scale facing today’s globally interconnected society. No one knows for sure what will work, so it is important to build a system that can evolve and adapt rapidly.”
Most of the world’s major cities risk rising sea levels and flooding in the coming decades as they are situated on coasts (above, Mumbai), river deltas, or have major rivers flowing through them.
Cities can learn from one another
Cities are responsible for 70% of global greenhouse-gas emissions and Dr Orstrom records that, as the United States has no effective national and international legislation to curb greenhouse gases, a growing number of city leaders are acting to protect their citizens and economies. By May last year, some 30 US states had developed their own climate action plans, and more than 900 US cities have signed up to the US climate-protection agreement.
Dr Orstrom believes that grassroots diversity in “green policymaking” makes economic sense because “sustainable cities” attract the creative, educated people who want to live in a pollution-free, modern urban environment that suits their lifestyles. But more than pollution control is needed, city planners will have to look at their hinterland and analyse flows of resources – energy, food, water, and people – into and out of their cities.
Los Angeles took decades to implement pollution controls, but other cities, like Beijing, converted rapidly when they saw the benefits. In the coming decades, a global system of interconnected sustainable cities could emerge.
Elinor Orstom ends:
“We have a decade to act before the economic cost of current viable solutions becomes too high. Without action, we risk catastrophic and perhaps irreversible changes to our life-support system. Our primary goal must be to take planetary responsibility for this risk, rather than placing in jeopardy the welfare of future generations.”
Will a global system of interconnected, sustainable cities emerge?
Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel laureate in economics, was Chief Scientific Advisor to the Planet Under Pressure conference and Professor of Political Science and Senior Co- Research Director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. She passed away on June 12, 2012.