Friday, December 18, 2009

Lessons from COP15 : Staring the challenge in the eyes.
Three Failures – Three new beginnings

It's close to midnight on this fateful Friday the 18th, as COP15 suddenly trudges unfulfilled sadly into our past. And as I sort through the debris, I am struggling to figure out what might be the main lessons of this experience. Let me share with you my late-night thoughts concerning three event-shaping failures, or at least stark short-comings which I suggest we will all do well to learn from. After all we have the planet waiting for us.

[This posting is in process. Come back later today for a complete article.]
1. The Future of the World Climate Policy Process
2. The Future of the Sustainable Transport Expert Process
3. The Future of World Streets
4. And you

World Streets needs to catch on before my feet get wet.
A reader from the Netherlands.

Let us not for one minute be seen as minimizing the enormous effort and high competence that have gone into the process behind the Copenhagen events over the last years. We all owe a huge debt to the people and organizations behind these efforts. COP15 may have given birth to far less than one would have hoped or our planet needed, but it was nonetheless a magnificent effort and all those involved, all those who have worked so hard behind it deeply deserve our respect and thanks.

But at the end of the day, the result that was and is so badly needed was not there. That's a fact.

While I am not in a position to judge all that has gone on at the level of detail that is appropriate for final summing up of the COP15 events and their antecedents (but you can bet there will be plenty of those), I have been following carefully from afar and would nonetheless like now to point to three critical shortcomings that in my view have marred these events and the processes behind them, lessons from which we have much to learn.

These are in turn: (a) The process failure behind COP15; (b) the missed leadership opportunity of our transport-environment expert community; and (c) the failure of this publication to make its voice heard. Let's look at each in turn, and from there see if we draw some useful lessons for what should happen next

Note to the reader: This posting is going to be steadily edited and repositioned in the coming days as a result of the flow of comments and suggestions that the author very much hopes we will be receiving here at World Streets. We will however keep on record each original of this editorial, so that the progress, if any, can be traced.

To this end we invite your comments either directly to this piece (see Comment button just below) or if you prefer more privately in an email addressed to the editor via In the latter event please let us know if you wish your comments to be shared or prefer to keep them private.

Finally we invite you to share this editorial with friends, colleagues, groups, publications and mailing lists that share these concerns. We need to stir up this debate if all this is to make a difference.

1. The Future of the World Climate Policy Process

We failed for a reason. And if is my view that a good part of that had to do with (a) the process and (b) the actors.

Mumbled justifications, wishful statements and talk-arounds aside, it is fair, I am afraid, to characterize the present process, with enormous variations depending on whom you are looking at, as: well-intentioned, high technical expertise, dominated by wishful-thinking, hubristic, hypocritical, self-centered, incompetent, piecemeal, mechanistic, failed, dangerous, humiliating, worrying, inconsistent, bumbling, last minute and utterly devoid of a practical game plan in the face of the challenges.

And leadership-lite. As we look back on this process we can see the extent to which it highlighted all the stark differences between leadership and administration. Let me try this again: this time we brought in the people who had to understand the changes and make the tough decisions at the tail end of the process. Perhaps we needed a mechanism whereby they are targeted from the very beginning. Think of it as a sale job if you will, for which we have to go to the person with the purse.

It will be clear to all that the problem is not the overarching goal of GHG reductions - whether justified in terms of precautionary principal or hot incontrovertible evidence as sure proof, that goal is or at least should be not up for discussion. No the problem I believe lies in the dilatory manner in which all those concerned, including each of us as voters, knowledge-workers and environmental activists, have attempted to deal with the challenge.

Lesson learned: We now need to shake up the process. Question: Where to start?

We need what in American slang is called a "game changer", something strategic and fundamental that will somehow work to alter the process. Here is one proposal that I hope you will think about.

Let's start by changing the overall profile of the key players, i.e., those actors who have up to now actively dominated the key elements of the process, whether at the international level or at that of the national delegations and other representatives who are in a position to influence not only the events at the time of the final round-up as in Copenhagen over these last weeks, but also in all that goes, that should go before.

A quick peek at the socio-economic profile of the majority of those sitting in the driver's seat this last time around reveals the following strong central trends:
• The leadership is predominantly male.

• They are individuals enjoying relatively elevated and privileged positions in society. They have almost to a "man" gone to university (of some sort), have jobs with for the most part salaries and levels security that are far above their respective national norm, and they are either car/owner drivers, or at the very least accept the culture associated with private cars as if not an altogether desirable at least inevitable thing.

• Finally, they are for the most part in the second half of their life span.

In summary, the present selection is too male, too secure, and too old. We need to reach more deeply into our society than that. (And oh yes, I can hear the screams.)

So, if we need to change the process one great way to get started will be to shake up and redistribute the players, those who are charged with thinking and working our way out of the climate box before it is not too late for our struggling planet and those most threatened by inalterable, irreversibly climate change. And to do this in a wide open public way as a statement of volition.

The proposal: All concerned national and international delegations and leading players should now be subjected to the following parity composition :

• 50% female
• 50% non-drivers
• 50% under 35 years of age.

This will be no magic wand in itself, but it would be a visible signal of the will to change. Otherwise what is likely to happen is that the same basic population of earnest, well-intentioned people is likely to trudge off and prepare a next round in Bonn, Mexico City or wherever the next way-station may be. And, unless the whole process is drastically reshaped, they will do what they do best. That is keep digging in the hole that have made thus far.

A quick word on the point concerning stepping up female leadership and participation all along the line and bringing it to something at least close to full gender parity. It is not as open and shut an argument as one may at first think.

A word on the concept of "gender balance".

Image three different types of decision fora: (a) all male, (b) mostly male, and (c) gender balanced.

Now, it is my observation that (a) and (b) invariably end up being pretty much the same in terms of their tone and outcomes, (with the all too rare case where there may be an exceptionally strong, aggressive even woman or women in the miniscule minority. There indeed you may see some sparks fly and different outcomes. But how often does this occur?).

On the other hand when you approach "gender balance" (let’s define it for now as a minimum of 35-40 % participation of the "other sex" - whatever that might happen to be), you open up a very different kind of social, communication and decision environment. The fact is that (a) and even (b) are in almost all cases dominated by male values, even if in most cases these may not be entirely palpable. But they are there and they influence the terms, and the outcome, of the debate and the decision process.

So when it come sorting out our planet, let's all get behind this concept of full gender parity at all stages of the climate debate, and decision process. Because if we don't we are going to lose this war. I promise you.

What else?

Well, it should be pretty clear by now that the whole idea of throwing this ball to an assembly of nations, led by and large by people who for the most part are very far from their own people's day to day lives, concerns and possibilities of adaptation, is probably not the best way to go. Part of the necessary solution no doubt , but certainly not all of it. Something important is clearly missing, a missing link if I may.

If we are looking for someone who is close to people, we certainly have to think about mayors, council persons, and local government more generally. How are we going to factor them into the process in this next stage?

Well without being able to sort out the fine details right here, we can at least answer this question in a first instance and with a certain authority. We can certainly say this: (a) We do need to bring them in and (b) and certainly not at seats on the sidelines. That's a pretty good start. Local government has to become a central part of the process, and now the only question is how to bring them in to play this role.

Historical aside: The first time the phrase "United Nations" began to have currency was when the US Secretary of State Cordell Hull started using it in early 1942 when the United States was at long last getting into the war effort . Despite his track record as a key thinker and mover in the Roosevelt cabinet, Cordell was told in almost exactly these words by the president: "Cordell, it's my war, not yours. You can think about what happens next."

So the good Secretary, sitting in his study, started to use the phrase "United Nations" as his own personal catchword for what soon the press and the world instead preferred to refer to as "the allies" (the earlier favored phrase being "the associated nations" (sound somehow familiar?) was quickly set aside.)

The trick in all that is that the Secretary and his able staff began to think through what kind of international cooperation was going to be needed to ensure that this latest war was not going to lead to another. To which his point of departure was to try to learn the lessons of the by then defunct League of Nations.

What's the point? Well this new organization did indeed get built and one result was that Cordell Hull was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945, and his work in laying the groundwork for the UN was high on the list of reasons that he was nominated.

The ideal was that these "united nations" would pick up the Western model and become functional democracies, and that in a very short time. Obviously we are not there yet, and what actually has taken place has turned out to be far outside of the vision that original founders had in mind.

But of course we have them and they have to be part of the process. But based on what we have learned over the last years and particularly in Copenhagen last week, they cannot be the only active players. Perhaps it is time to consider in this context setting up some sort of "second chamber" of authority, and in the context of global warming, such a chamber would have to have a strong, informed voice from and for our cities.

Obviously there is plenty of hard work ahead of us all in the coming months. And how is this admirable goal to be achieved. Through commitment and real leadership. My guess is that it will have to start from the countries that are already trying to push the envelope on this. I could make a guess as could you, but let's instead simply launch the challenge and see who picks it up. And once we begin to get the model up and working, I am sure that almost all of the rest will follow. That being after all what leadership is all about. Going first!

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2. The Future of the Sustainable Transport Expert Process

Now what about the missed leadership opportunity of the leading edge of the transport/environmental community (including us here at World Streets, the New Mobility Agenda and the author of this piece, by the way)? Is that a detail? Let's have a look.

Executive summary : Huge missed opportunity.

Before digging in here, I would remind the reader of the subtitle of the New Mobility Agenda ( which reads as it has for more than a decade: "The Politics of Transportation: New thinking & world-wide collaborative problem-solving". This is the spirit of these comments.

We, the transport sector broadly defined, are undeniably a huge part of the problem, averaging with variations something around 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions total. A fifth of this huge planetary problem is far too big a slice to be swept aside or ignored. But somehow we, collectively, failed even to dent the decision and debate process, and certainly not in a meaningful way.

Now the true tragedy of this is that our sector got right has something very important to offer. Namely that we do in fact know how to start to make those necessary sharp near-term reductions in our share of the planetary load. But our voices were well out of the mainstream.

Here's what I think is the problem. Just about all of us who have pretty high competence in the field of sustainable transport – namely the making of policy, planning and investment decisions in the sector in a way which is not only far more respectful to the environment but also takes a big step ahead in terms of life quality, economic viability and the quality of our cities and communities -- have for better or worse positioned ourselves as specialists, as the people and skill set that is good at making better and softer transportation projects. That's great and indeed very important. But in light of the present planetary emergency that is not enough.

We need not just more and better sustainable transport projects, but we need a whole new mental architecture about how they fit into the greater whole. We now need to shape not just the details but the politics of transportation decision making and investments. In the broadest sense.

Our debilitating short-coming exists at two levels:

The first is at the level of the city or community served. Our goal should not be just to do a good carshare operation, BRT, traffic calming operations, safe bike or clever pricing programs, or any other single worthy project or measure here or there. What we need is to be able to show how to combine all these important bits and pieces into an integrated, multi-level, synergistic city-wide transformative project. A sustainable city project is not only more than the sum of all of its parts, but also requires a new skill set: mastering the politics of transportation.

This is not easy admittedly, because it requires that we directly take on the hydra-headed monster of old mobility, which until now has been the unchallenged auto-pilot way to go: spending taxpayer money to facilitate life for moving cars and warehoused cars (i.e., parking). And we are unlikely to do this one project at a time, at least not in the time span which is dictated by the ongoing climate emergency.

Which I interpret to mean that we now have to become far more programmatic in our approach.

Now this is possible only if we have the full, unwavering support of the city leaders in each case. Hard to get, but if the transformation is ever to be made this is the only way to get the job done.

And as part of this, we all need to be giving more coverage of and support to those brave programs out there that are truly trying to put all the bits and pieces together to create a sustainable, livable, accessible city. We need not only more heroic cities, but also an ability to make all of our best knowledge and expertise available to support their programs. This will require more effective networking of competences and new formulae for bringing them in. And as part of this, we also must be willing to be critical of even our friends and allies when we see that their projects and programs are not going to achieve our necessary high ambitions. (Quietly of course but firmly.)

I am afraid that collectively in our sector we suffer from a fuzzy vision, a blurry perspective on what it takes to make a city transformative project work. Examples abound: There is a whole brave world out there that finds it comforting to point to places like Curitiba, Bogota and your own favorite "transformative city", as success achieved. But the real world is not like that and if you look hard enough (with local partners who live the daily reality of the city's present mobility arrangements) you may well hear quite a different story from them.

Sustainable transport in a sustainable city is not a one-time thing. It exactly resembles parenthood. You can't just do this or that good thing and then let it go. Every day, all day attention to the details is what counts, and what is so very rare.

Our leading cities here in Europe really do hold some excellent examples, though they are few in number. A close look at Copenhagen, Zurich, Vauban or Paris yields some good clues as to what is needed to keep this continuing revolutionary process going. At the end of the day we can call it culture, meaning that for it to work it has to be deeply embedded in the social and political fabric. It is not personal, it is not political in the most narrow sense of the word (i.e., partisan), it is cultural and, incidentally, require active citizenry and democracy that works.

What does this mean in a post-COP15 world? That those of us who have something to offer start to band together more effectively, that we get away from our emphasis on projects and start to think in more global terms, that we get behind any city innovations project that takes on the real challenge of GHG reduction on an area-wide basis together with upgrading the quality of mobility and daily life in the city or region.

To conclude for now. The mechanics of this transformation are relatively simple, at least to list. We need to accomplish two things in parallel. First to cut the physical quantum of motorized traffic (VMT, VKT) by some significant amount (via varying place-sensitive packages of measures and actions which range from the economic to regulatory to physical), and in parallel extend the palette of transportation alternatives in each target cities. And while this is not the place to get into these details here, you will find ample discussions and examples in the page of World Streets and the many sources and programs to which it links.

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3. The Future of "World Streets"

World Streets, and behind it the New Mobility Agenda, are, to the best of my knowledge the only programs in the world that have been claiming that the transport sector can, if the leadership is there, obtain big ticket reductions on GHG emissions in a quite short period. It is our vision, at least in and around cities and quite possibly more broadly as well, that these significant reductions can be achieved and demonstrated to the world as proof positive that this approach works and that we can indeed start to take better care of our delicate planet. These claims have not been very seriously taken, including by our expert sustainable transport colleagues and allies. They are considered visionary if not downright peculiar. Gut they are not.

The process, the chain of reasoning that we defend works along the following broad lines:

1. Climate change is the most important, urgent single issue on the international political agenda.

2. Countering climate change opens up a new economic agenda with its own strong growth paths. It does not require stepping down to a reduced life style.

3. Our immediate focus here at World streets, our area of competence, should be on day-to-day transport --in cities, small communities and outlying areas.

4. The policy challenge in the transport sector is to target and obtain significant GHG reductions in the one to five years immediately ahead. 5% reductions can be easily achieved. 10% is possible with strong leaderships

5. The only effective way to reduce transport-generated emissions within this time horizon lies in the (a) immediate, (b) radical, and (c) strategic reduction of motor vehicle traffic.

6. Systematic GHG/traffic reductions impact proportionately on fossil fuel savings, quality of life, environment, personal health, economic renewal, stronger communities, world peace . . . and better and more democratic transport for all.

7. To do this we need to clear the fog and focus 100% on those tools and measures that will specifically permit us to achieve the necessary scale GHG reductions. Starting immediately!

8. While in exact parallel, new and better mobility options must be opened up to all.

9. The leading edge of practice in the sector concurs that this necessarily aggressive policy is (a) feasible, (b) realistic and (c) effective --and has identified a broad spectrum of real-world mobility modes, measures, tools, solutions and strategies that work.

10. We will not be able to achieve these reductions in all places, but we can start and start with strong examples who can illustrate how a low carbon transport is not only possible but desirable.

11. Leadership by example is the only possible path to the degree of policy reform and performance improvement that is required. (Everything else is just conversation.)

[This posting is in process. Come back later for a more complete article.]

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  1. The inconvenience truth is most people around the world are troubled by mundane tangible problems, subsistence and economic concerns.

    New mobility agenda should be based on economic sustainability, not less than environmental ideology. There are many good reasons to improve mobility so it will be more efficient, economical and productive.

  2. Shirpa Bose, UNDP Liberia MonroviaSunday, 20 December, 2009

    It was worth reading even at this preliminary stage, Eric!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us all. Shall await the final version.

    Meanwhile let me wish you a merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

    Shipra Bose (Ms)
    Senior Gender Advisor (CPR)
    UNDP Liberia

  3. Among (too) many things, I am quite curious about how the private automobile industry is going to position themselves, or their marketing...advertising... perhaps even in the coming weeks or definitely in the new year.

    Will we see things like "They failed, but you don't have to: The new (Favourite Make) Entitlementana. Committed to Fun (and saves the climate, if you care)." OR "It's time to have fun again. Hummer 2.0".

    In other words I am convinced that the Climate Scare has been a huge gift to the "green car". Old Mobility, smelling better. This is one thing I am going to focus on.

  4. Lee Schipper, Berkeley CA USASunday, 20 December, 2009

    “ I for one am happy as what little happened is still far more than I expected. However, we have a huge problem – how to decouple transport from CO2 so we can fix transport and thereby fix CO2, rather than letting Transport be a slave to the fight over CO2 itself.”

    You can quote me.

    Lee Schipper, Ph.D
    Project Scientist
    Global Metropolitan Studies

    2614 Dwight Way 2nd floor
    University of California Berkeley
    CA 94720-1782 USA

  5. Pascal van den Noort, Amsterdam, NESunday, 20 December, 2009

    Apart from EU and USA 5 types of governmental groups of developing countries met in Copenhagen:

    Brazil China India South Africa
    Chavez and other Left Latin Countries
    Arab Oil producing countries
    Real poor countries
    Countries who will really suffer, like Island nations

    The Arab Oil producing countries and the Chavez people were really blocking for financial and political reasons

    I agree with Gore that the cities and regions should meet and work things out; that's also our best level since mobility is one of the things cities can really do something about

    Pascal van den Noort, Amsterdam, NE

  6. Pascal van den Noort, Amsterdam, NEMonday, 21 December, 2009

    Also: the format of these huge meetings does not work anymore. Why don't the polluting countries sit together and hash it out and why don't they work with countries who have concrete problems in the world?

    I see a new way of dealing with development aid; it can be altered into change for a sustainable worlds where projects are done to cure problems in environmental. social and economical fields.

  7. Derek Scrafton, Adelaide AustraliaMonday, 21 December, 2009


    I thought your piece in progress was pretty good. The idea that a third of those debating the issues should be non-car owning (not necessarily non-drivers) or not the recipient of a car and/or chauffeur and/or parking place paid for by an employer or government agency is particularly significant.

    My memory of Copenhagen is a lady who pointed out that when the banks screwed up the response was rapid and expensive – how come that political will was absent in Copenhagen?

  8. When I lived in Turkey years ago they had no domestic vehicle manufacturing industry but they solved their transportation problems more elegantly than any American city with begged and borrowed vehicles. They ran dolmushes (meaning stuffed full) consisting of vans that were converted to carry ten passengers, that were lightly centrally organized in town squares, that were flexible as to route even thought they had fixed routes, that were frequent and that were cheap. They made use of the existing infrastructure for internal combustion vehicles yet they got TEN TIMES the push per joule. Best of all, they can be set up as superior transportation modes without turning the transportation sector topsy turvy with billion dollar investments in light rail. subways and bus fleets.
    It seems to me that the Achilles heel of current transportation thinking is the blinkered devotion to huge, heavy, expensive solutions that investors can make billions off of. The dolmush solution (found natively around the world also as e.g. jitneys) has a tremendous multiplicative factor for transporting and could revolutionize transportation.
    Next point: if reducing waste of fuel and investment and labor is important, then revise public transportation to reflect that. On-time departures are a scourge which laugh at efficiency. We need to move to worldwide acceptance of on-full departures. In the world of dolmushes, these practically coincide but as theoretical propositions, they are functionally exclusive. On-full departure reflects our concern with efficiency. On-time departures thwart it. Why can we not step outside of our cultural norms, even a little, for such a basic reorientation of what we are used to?


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