Friday, August 7, 2009

Archives, August 2006: President Clinton calls for massive CO2 reductions in next 10 to 15 years

Almost exactly three years ago to the day, former US President Bill Clinton addressed a distinguished audience in Los Angles on the occasion of launching the Clinton Climate Initiative Cities program. His call for immediate massive CO2 reductions worked to inspire and energize all our sustainable transport work since that date. World Streets remembers:

1. Introduction (Aug. 2009)
2. Letter (Feb. 2007)
3. Video and voice(Feb. 2007)
4. Closing commentary
5. Reader comments


We have to reduce about 80% of our greenhouse gas emissions
over the next 10 to 15 years.

- William Jefferson Clinton, 1 August 2006
1. Introduction

Three long years ago, a total of eighteen words, which got all of our attention. For our part, we chose to follow his challenge and to try to work with this tough target in the area we know best, international collaboration and group problem-solving in the field of sustainable transportation, worldwide.

Over these three intervening years the Clinton team has chosen to concentrate the greater part of their finite resources to three strategic program areas: (a) increasing energy efficiency in cities, (b) catalyzing the large-scale supply of clean energy, and (c) working to stop deforestation. In addition, they have entered into a partnership with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) focusing on the implementation and improvement of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems and bicycle networks worldwide. In their words: "CCI also helps cities adopt proven and emerging technologies to reduce carbon in their transportation sector. We take a holistic view, looking at vehicles and propulsion systems, fuel options, and fuel distribution and dispensing infrastructure."

Their contribution in bringing attention to the fundamental issues and then pressing ahead in their selected areas of endeavor have mobilized international attention and brought in new resources to deal with their chosen areas of action.

Our work over this same period has taken quite a different approach and at no time has overlapped with theirs: but we were and are strongly motivated by that original call for great vision and great discipline. To kick off our new project, The New Mobility/Climate Emergency Project, I took it upon myself, unasked, to address an open letter to President Clinton in early 2007 to let him and his team know that we were ready to address this new challenge. The text of that letter follows:

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New Mobility Partnerships
8-10, rue Joseph Bara
75006 Paris, France

25 February 2007

Dear Mr. President,

80%? Eigh-ty percent? Ouch! You certainly have captured my attention. And your public commitment to this is exactly what is called for to sound the trumpet and mobilize all our talents, energies and resources to start to break the impasse that today is strangling our societies! Let's see now how we can build on this.

What I appreciate about your gaspingly high target is that not only does it deliver a very strong message, but also that it makes it clear that if we are going to get even close to it we must be ready to challenge and change everything. If we content ourselves with being cautious and conservative this time around, this is going to lead to a reappearance of our old friend, "business as usual" -- and hand in hand with it the equally paralyzing "politics as usual".

If we allow ourselves to go this old familiar and safe route, Mr. President, we can be pretty sure that we will fail in the mission you have set for us. To get even close to your target we are going to need to break a lot of the old defining molds and ways of thinking. Einstein put it something like this: "The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them." Exactly.

The second thing we like about your target is that your choice of C02 (I will continue with this as an abbreviation for the full lot which of course extends to the complete and ugly family of greenhouse gasses, particulates, et al) stretches far beyond just atmosphere issues, important as they are. Lots less CO2 in our cities means, inevitably, lots less traffic (which of course is the vital key for what now needs to happen). Lots less traffic leads in turn to more livable and efficient cities, quieter and safer streets, healthier and sweeter lives, and saner personal and collective economics. Add that up to your parallel call for fossil fuels savings (the correlation with CO2 reduction being close to 100%) and we have an agenda which many of us will be pleased to work with you on.

Transport in cities - A hard nut to crack

Our specific expertise here in the New Mobility Agenda lies specifically in the transport end of your project. And in this respect we want you to know that there are at least a couple of thousand people around the world with solid expertise and vision in the field who are eager to take up this challenge, and are ready to share their ideas and energies with you. The site, information and views that you see here at -- we call it our "collaborative workpad" -- is just our first rough cut. There is a lot more where that comes from if you need it.

At the end of the day the big problem when it comes to issues of transport in cities from a policy perspective is that it does not lend itself to the same kind of one shot analysis and decision-making that may do the job in other sectors of city life. What we call "transport" is, in sharp contrast with the rest, an enormously fussy, fuzzy, chaotic, continuing, iterative, non-stop part of daily life.

The crux of the remedial policies in this sector in our pluralistic democratic societies is that they require that we find ways of understanding and influencing many thousands, millions of mainly minute and personal decisions made by individual citizens and groups with very different views on the topic of how they are to get around in their daily lives. This is a long way from, say, buying "clean fuel" garbage trucks or buses.

The First Five Percent

Now, is this to say, Mr. President, that we sit here smugly and can guarantee you a policy kit that will get your 80% reduction worldwide in the next decade or so? No, of course not -- but what we can do is set out the basics of a radical city transport reform package that can start to achieve significant CO2, traffic and fossil fuel savings in the several years immediately ahead - despite the fact that this in a sector in which currently all the basic indicators everywhere are moving in exactly the opposite direction. And as we start to eat into the problem percent by percent, this is not only going to give us the first solid improvement but also set us off on a learning experience that will open up new ideas, energy and confidence for more and better in the years that follow. We are for now calling this program, The First Five Percent.

To make all this happen is going to require a combination of vision, pragmatism, generosity, and commitment. Along with rare political leadership and a certain dose of, I have to say it, guile. This is something that of all the programs and institutions know today, the Clinton Foundation just may be one of our greatest hopes, simply because it is not tied down to some more or less fixed agenda, interests, or over concern for perpetuating itself out into the indefinite future. But for this to work there must also be in parallel a worldwide networking effort which brings to the program the best of the experience, perspective and expertise available on these issues. Maximum diversity in the minimum space. And that is possibly where we can lend a hand.

Nobody asked us to do this of course, but my colleagues and I want your challenge to succeed and since we know a thing or two about our particular end of all this - namely about how people and goods get around in cities all over the world, for better and worse -- we would be poor world citizens and rotten parents if we were just to sit back and wait for someone to take care of it all for us.

Mr. President, we want this to work. We need it to work! We are most grateful to you for putting this challenge into high relief and shaking up the entrenched thinking on all this. And we have every intention of keeping at it from this end. I very much hope this will serve you and indeed all of us well. After all, if we don't dig in here and now, who will?


Eric Britton

The New Mobility Agenda/Climate Emergency Project
The Commons, Paris
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Three minutes of your time (A short video message to round out the above)

Click > to play the full video(three minutes. As posted on 26 Jan 2007).

Two bits of further background to set the stage (Audios)

* 2006: Click here for Clinton Climate Initiative Announcement Los Angeles, August 1, 2006. -- >
This audio transcript of the presentation lasts for one hour and includes President Clinton's challenge address.
(Print transcript available here -

* 1996: Click for 1 minute voice intro to OECD conference follow-up: Sustainable Transportation's Dirty Secret, 14 Oct. 1996, OECD Paris.
This is an unedited audio extract introducing a presentation made in Paris by Eric Britton to an OECD working group on sustainable transportation in October 1996, subsequent to the 1996 OECD World conference "Toward Sustainable Transportation" that took place in Vancouver Canada in March of that year. (Give it a minute or two to load.)

What is quite appalling about this message and warning is that today, more than a decade later, we have not only failed to make any global progress on these challenges that were already pretty cleared noted back in 1996 by at least some of those participating in the conference, but that the overall situation has continued to decline and that at accelerating rates. Fortunately there is something that can be done about it. Read, listen and watch on!

(Click here for full 1996 PPT presentation. 9 Mo.)

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Paris. 6 August 2009

In a very real way this decision to accept and work with this high emergency target has shaped not only all our work in these last years under the New Mobility Agenda, but it has also provided the basic underpinnings of the philosophy behind World Streets - the unwavering target of immediate-term GHG emissions reductions without waiting for future help (that may or may not come).

What lesson can we draw from all this? One thing for sure. It's a big planet out there and the problems are so many and so enormous that all hands are needed if we collectively are to meet these challenges. There certainly is no one best way to move ahead on this, of that we can be sure, but the disciplined path we have taken looks every bit as relevant in 2009 as it did back in 2006. In fact, even more so!

In the coming weeks, we shall look further into how this has worked out. What we have learned. And what we think it means for the future.

Eric Britton
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