​Citizens for a Clean Society

Dirty development is not inescapable as most politicians and economists would like you to believe: development fueled on dirty energy and over-exploitation of natural capital is a choice, but not the only one. This article focuses on why citizens hold the key to a clean shift in politics and why the starting point is the reinvention of our urban future.

Reinventing development will need imagination – a bigger and freer imagination - to transform our aspirations, to reinvent our countries and especially our urban future. Development as usual–growth at any cost, polluted cities and over-exploitation of key resources—hurts people and compromises our ability to prosper in the long term. And shouldn’t development be the means to a better life for the great majority of people?

We are entering the urban and more southern century - by 2050 most people around the world will live in cities. And most of these people will live in developing countries. The mix of pressing demographics and development as usual do not add up to a promising future. There is no such thing as a collective prosperity in countries running on dirty energy, polluted water and toxic air. An alternative course is possible –through cleaner and safer pathways-- if we abandon obsolete notions that accept unsustainable development as if it were inescapable. We can afford bigger aspirations, especially as our southern confidence expands almost as fast as the growth of our middle class and business opportunities.

In Latin America for example, the arrival of the middle class should be good news. So why not amplify the options that a higher income can buy? Why stick to the aspiration of spending Sunday at the food chain hall of the newest shopping center? Why give up on the aspiration of modern, clean and easy transport and cities? If dirty development has stifled economics and politics then we need to offer citizens a pathway to get out.

We have a legacy of sustainability debates that are disconnected from citizen engagement. Sustainable-development silos have multiplied and by default – or design—they leave questions of political economy out. This evasiveness limits the impact of technical efforts especially when they lead to“paralysis by analysis. That experts throw numbers, research papers and workshops at the problem is understandable—and we need top quality analysis— but the time has come to challenge convention in politics and economics in practice whenever the focus is put on short term growth at the expense of the public interest.

Take presidential campaigns. In Nivela, we made it a priority to analyze southern elections. We looked at Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, India, South Africa and the upcoming Brazilian election. The conclusion? Political parties, especially the traditional ones, are stuck with the same recipe: A tiresome promise of growth and jobs and the expected commitment to decrease corruption and red tape. The menu is nearly identical in all of our countries. Most candidates insist on short-term goals for the sake of electoral politics while evading vital topics that matter to citizens such as better public services and quality of life issues. Hence the paradox, if Presidential candidates do little to reverse the cycle of dirty energy, polluted air and endangered water, why do we still vote for them?

If Presidential candidates do little to reverse the cycle of dirty energy, polluted air and endangered water, why do we still vote for them?

Let’s face it: Most citizens have not found an alternative vision of development that they can embrace as exciting and credible. They hear economists blame fiscal deficits for our problems. They see conflicts between environmentalists and megaprojects. They put up with political parties blaming the other for poverty and inequality. Only World Cups or sensational scandals– the grand corruption scheme, a dramatic court case or a high profile resignation —give citizens a break from a tedious cycle of predictable ideas.

Citizens hold the key to societal change so we need a better and more exciting menu of ideas. How to increase citizen power? How to engage them?

Clean rules for democracy

No universal rule will ever apply to the task of shaping citizen aspirations. Many efforts around the world seek to make citizens aware of climate change. They target different strategies:

“Show them numbers!”

“Get them angry!”

“No, get them inspired!”

Messaging boils down to local politics. Victories occur whenever citizens believe in the power of their actions. In several countries, citizens are joining the campaigns to divest from the fossil fuel industry. This movement raises awareness of the impact that burning fossil fuels has on the climate. It also demonstrates the impact of coal and oil interests on democracy, particularly on lawmakers who remain in the industry’s pockets. How can a citizen make a difference? By demanding that pension fund managers, banks and university administrations end their most irresponsible investments. Students are very active in this movement. One recent positive story came with Stanford University’s decision to divest its $18 billion endowment from direct holdings in 100 coal companies and is recommending its external fund managers do the same. The list of divestment decisions, especially a rejection of coal plants, continues to grow and includes development banks.

Because our countries need to solve a development conundrum, we need to respond with development solutions – not environmental or “climate” policy. The carbon-centric approach will hardly pierce the walls of development debates. There is no question that we need to get environmental and climate policy right if we are serious about development, the right kind of development. My point is that in order to engage citizens, we will need to offer a broader and far more exciting vision to embrace than “emission reductions”.

Citizens for a clean society

“Clean” is straightforward and goes further than the “emissions” narrative. Ultimately, we want societies to play clean. Clean covers far more than clean energy, drinkable water and breathable air: it speaks about open and transparent democracy that respects clean rules. The shift to a better urban future builds on citizens supporting governments and businesses that play clean. Aren’t we getting governments elected and buying products and services? And if we want a better deal out of development (and infrastructure) then we need to check whether our representatives in congress have clean hands.

We have tested this concept on the ground. We used “clean” to frame the work of an organization launched this January, Costa Rica Limpia (Limpia means clean) which seeks to build citizenship around clean development and clean rules of the game. We created language and visuals for “clean” that depart from the traditional environmentalist angle by choosing urban themes and putting people at the center of the story. Our job is not to turn citizens into “greens” but to empower Costa Ricans to engage as citizens. We insist on our right to, and duty towards, building a Costa Rica Limpia.

"Clean" covers far more than clean energy, drinkable water and breathable air: it speaks about open and transparent democracy that respects clean rules. The shift to a better urban future builds on citizens voting governments and supporting business that play clean.

We analyzed the 2013-2014 election campaign, ran a Facebook campaign, produced a video, and tracked electoral promises which won us nearly 33,500 followers in a few weeks (a handsome number for a small country). Given the positive response with citizens and journalists, we will track progress on electoral pledges once the first 6 months in government have passed. Now we are designing a model to monitor Congress: Will our representatives playing in 2014-2018 support clean transport? Our transport is dirty and chaotic and is our number one source of CO2 emissions. Without tackling transport our economy will continue to lose money (inefficiency, congestion, pollution) and the city will continue to be a source of frustration and aggression.

So Costa Rica Limpia has confirmed our instinct: the city is the natural entry point. They touch the city, they smell it. They love San José –or hate it. Some people avoid it in gated communities, but for a majority San José is part of their lives. Young people are our main constituency. We observe a new generation of young professionals that believe in “smarter city” and evoke cleaner aspirations through concrete actions (e.g. Chepecletas, YoAmoChepe - “I love San José”-, and the Center for the Urban Sustainability)

Other parts of Latin America have gone or are going through a similar discovery. Emerging aspirations to better cities (and better transport in particular) is the most concrete demand for better and cleaner development. These demands for change are expressed through aggressive protests and other means. Deep frustration with transport and other public services among young Brazilians triggered the protests of 2013 demanding changes from President Dilma Rousseff that escalated into historical protests (see this Nivela Infographic). The government responded to some of the demands in transport and other services. When the city of Medellin in Colombia hosted the World Urban Forum in April, participation hit new records when 22,000 people filled out the conference halls. The Medellin´s forum linked better cities and social justice - a critical link given the urgent need to promote deeper social integration. Not surprisingly, young participants found it appealing.

The anti-green push

A vicious opposition to the clean shift is underway. The push comes from a blend of interests such as companies profiting from dirty energy and weak enforcement of environmental and climate regulations to government officials and lawmakers that side with these interests. The comfy relationship between companies and lawmakers breeds toxic campaign finance practices that hurt the public interest. An extreme case is the U.S., where Congressmen stand publicly against science and chose to deny climate risks (that can harm the U.S.) in order to preserve narrow dirty energy business in their home state.

The anti-green lobby claims that a clean economy is bad for GDP growth. They also reduce legitimate concerns about sustainability and democracy to one-dimensional stereotypes such as “Green as luxury” or “Green as red tape”. The cynicism is climbing new heights. A crude example is Owen Paterson, who was in the U.K. government until a few weeks ago and wrote “I am proud of standing up against the green lobby” as a newspaper article. He worked for the very government that had pledged to become “greenest government ever”. So this raises many questions such as why a government would chose a Secretary of Environment who stands against the greens? We see growing examples of governments becoming vocally anti-green. The Australian Prime Minister has led a U-turn in climate policy in Australia. The Canadian Prime Minister is another example and the list goes on.

We need to have a more public conversation about the extent to which some business interests have an influence over public policy. That is why, in addition to citizen engagement (which is the focus of this article), we need business champions who can outperform their dirtier counterparts through better business models and smarter strategies in the long term.

Cleaning up economics

Dirty development is not inescapable as most politicians and economists would like you to believe: development fuelled on dirty energy and over exploitation of natural capital is a choice. It is not the only choice. So need to sharpen the economic argument to debunk the myths that prevail in national debates and media. We also need to give a stronger role for science and risk management in the recalibration of our development priorities because we will need a shift towards increased safety in a world of climate risk, water scarcity and food insecurity.

Let the numbers speak: The evidence supports the case for a clean shift. a) We have learned from the IPCC that the loss of GDP globally as a result of climate impacts would be 0.2 and 2%. b) The World Bank has quantified the economic benefits of cleaner development especially in "lives, jobs and GPD". For example, if Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the U.S. and countries of the European Union shifted more travel to public transit, moved more fright traffic off of roads to rails and sea, and improved fuel efficiency, the savings would amount to 20,000 lives a year, avert hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses, nearly $300 billion in energy, and carbon emissions reductions by more than four gig tons. c) The “New Climate Economy” report by economists and former heads of states, to be launched in September, quantifies the economic benefits of climate actions – and the negative economics of climate inaction. d) “Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States" —a bipartisan report written by U.S. economists, financial experts and business people—has quantifies the costs for the U.S. economy of not tackling climate risks (including sea level rise, property loss, extreme heat, storm surges, energy demands and declining crop yields). For example, “by 2050 between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of existing coastal property will likely be below sea level nationwide, with $238 billion to $507 billion worth of property below sea level by 2100.” Sharpening the economic arguments will also help counterbalancing the systematic bias against renewable energy that makes the public believe it is “decades away” from becoming a serious option. The expansion of the renewable energy industry has contributed to the systematic decline in costs and has led to an 80% drop in the prices of solar power in five years. Investing 1 million EUR in energy efficiency interventions generates between 17 and 19 jobs. Only in 2013, 6.5 million jobs were created in the renewable energy sector worldwide.

The myth of “cheap”: Our political debates at home are often captured by the delusion of “cheap prices": cheap electricity, gasoline and water is sold as pathway to development. Many countries, especially middle-income economies have grown in technical sophistication regarding energy systems, electricity options and natural resource management so we can afford engaging in a far more transformative debate about the investments that are needed in order to modernize our infrastructure. By directing the debate around the country we want to build we can move the debate away from the fallacy of “cheap” pricing as the way to succeed. Moreover, the case of “cheapness” leaves out the negative externalities accruing from the exploitation of these resources. Fossil fuel subsidies around the world ($544 billion in 2012) are costly to society and will need to be phased out. So, we need to unwrap the “cheap oil” myth with credible analysis that shows the true cost of oil (and other fossil fuels).

We need to empower citizens and we also need to recalibrate economic arguments in support of a clean shift in development and democracy. We will need champions in politics, business and society that make the public interest a centrepiece of a new urban agenda. Encouraging efforts to build cleaner and more inclusive cities offer fertile ground for showing citizens that the clean shift has already begun.

* Monica Araya is the Founder and Director of Nivela and Costa Rica Limpia.

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