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Rio de Janiero, Brazil

Rio+20: Cities bring sustainability to sub-national level

Few urban settlements outside the South American continent exhibit such visible thirst for space as Brazil’s Cidade Meravilhosa. The vortex of mixtures and coexisting extremes, permeating all aspects of Rio de Janeiro’s life, creates an urban continuity glued together by a single unifying force – the desire to live in the city. Clinging to steep hill slopes, burdened by poverty and low infrastructure,  informal settlements are pulsating tentacles of the urbanscape, reminding the Rio+20 participants of the urgency of addressing sustainable urbanization issues.

Reports show that Latin America is more urbanized than any other region in the developing world, with 80 percent of its relatively young population living in cities today, a share expected to rise to 85 percent by 2025. The region's 198 large cities—defined as having populations of 200,000 or more—together contribute more than 60 percent of GDP today. Although considered as engines of economic growth, there are serious downsides to the urban and economic agglomerations taking place in large cities.

The McKinsey Global Institute reports that cities “can become so large that their diseconomies begin to slow them down…  In the recent past, growth rates in Brazil's São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have dropped from above to below the national averages in these two economies.” Informality, socio-spatial segregation, persistent poverty, pollution, poor transportation systems, and other challenges are increased by the growing phenomenon of rural exodus to cities. According to the MGI reports, cities have to address four dimensions of sustained urban economic growth: economic performance, social condition, sustainable use of resources, and finance and governance.

While the official document of the Rio+20 Summit was being negotiated, a set of roundtables concerning sustainable cities took place in Rio. Hosted by the C40 initiative (a coalition founded in 2005 by 20 major cities which has grown to include 59 now) and supported by the Clinton Foundation, the event held at Copacabana Fort resulted in signing of the agreement for cities to reduce annual greenhouse emissions by around 250 million tons by 2020. Characterized by global media as one the most significant developments to come out of Rio+20, the agreement indicates that the inability to reach a global consensus has been somewhat redeemed by the agility of municipal authorities.

"We're not arguing with each other about emissions targets, we're going out and making progress," said Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York and chairman of the C40. While sharing the same commitment, cities are able to shape the sustainability model according to their own particular situation and challenges. Pragmatic and result-oriented, this approach was adopted by C40 Mayors on behalf of C40 cities. Additionally, a Solid Waste Network was launched at the meeting: a learning tool that will assist local governments in reducing methane emissions coming from waste management. 

During the conference, host city Rio de Janeiro was hailed as a model of sustainable development for recent efforts including this month’s closure of a large open-air landfill on the banks of the city’s hyper-polluted Guanabara Bay. The city is also working on a project to divert organic matter from waste to generate organic fertilizer. 

"The message the mayors want to send here is that a series of decisions and actions can and are already being taken," said Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor Eduardo Paes.

There is a palpable and immediate influence of large conferences on their host cities. The Summit held in 1992 was the turning point towards a new urban approach for the city of Rio de Janeiro. Taking advantage of the international repercussions surrounding the event, the local government focused its efforts in rescuing Rio’s public spaces. The Copacabana and Ipanema sidewalks, in their current state, were but part of the simple and inexpensive urban strategy of restoring the depleted social life of the city and redeeming Rio’s reputation associated with urban violence and insecurity. Instead of focusing attention on cars, the design projects generated by the program have privileged pedestrians, significantly reducing crime rate and carbon emissions. By signing the C40 agreement, exactly 20 after the first Earth Summit, Rio is ready to take the sustainability effort one step further.