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Mayors gather for climate change summit

Mayors from some of the world's biggest cities are gathering in San Francisco to forge  guidelines for sustainable living  as part of the United Nations Environment Day.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mayors from some of the world's biggest cities are gathering here this week to forge a set of international guidelines for sustainable urban living — billed as a municipal version of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming that the United States never ratified.

The Urban Environmental Accords, to be signed at the United Nations World Environment Day Conference, is the latest example of cities seeking to tackle climate change despite reluctance from their national governments.

"We cannot afford to wait for the state or federal government to do the job. There are too many excuses going around, particularly in this country," said San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. "Increasingly, the world will look at mayors to become the stewards of the environment since the vast majority of the pollution comes from cities."

At least 70 mayors from cities such as London, Rio de Janeiro, Tehran, Capetown, Sydney and Shanghai are scheduled to attend the five-day conference in San Francisco — the first U.S. city to host the annual event. World Environment Day, celebrated each June 5, was established in 1974, with annual conferences held since 1987.

At this year's gathering, themed "Green Cities" and running June 1-5, the mayors will trade ideas on sustainable urban living in areas such as renewable energy, recycling, public transportation, city parks and clean air and water. More than 230 community activities for World Environment Day are scheduled around the San Francisco Bay area.

Gov. Schwarzenegger signs on
On Wednesday, when the conference opens, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will unveil California's plan to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" blamed for trapping heat in the earth's atmosphere and raising temperatures worldwide.

San Francisco, where the United Nations was founded 60 years ago, is known as an environmental trendsetter, and city officials plan to showcase its green successes. The city now recycles two-thirds of its garbage, claims the largest fleet of alternative fuel vehicles and boasts the country's largest city-owned solar power installation at the Moscone Convention Center.

"There's so much we can share, but there's also an enormous amount we can learn from other cities," Newsom said.

Until recently, international treaties have been the main forum for addressing global environmental problems such as climate change, which scientists say is causing increasingly violent storms, shrinking wildlife habitats and rising sea levels that threaten coastal cities.

The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in the Japanese city in 1997, requires industrialized nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by an average of five percent below 1990 levels. The treaty was ratified by at least 140 countries and went into effect in February.

Bush administration stand
But the United States, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, did not sign because Bush administration officials believed the treaty would result in the loss of five million U.S. jobs and raise energy prices, said Michele St. Martin, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

"President Bush favors an aggressive approach on climate change — one that fosters economic growth that will lead to new technology and innovation," St. Martin said, pointing to the administration's $2 billion climate change initiative that promotes clean-coal technology, hydrogen-powered vehicles, nuclear power and renewable energy.

Environmentalists and government officials are questioning whether Kyoto and other global treaties between national governments are the solution.

"We have all these laws on the books, but none of them are being implemented," said Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment. "They have to teeth. Nothing happens if you don't implement them. No one's going to hold them accountable."

Frustrated by the U.S. government's stance on global warming, many Americans states, cities and corporations are taking steps to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases from factories, automobiles and power plants.

San Francisco, Seattle have action plans
Last year, San Francisco was perhaps the first U.S. city to adopt its own "climate action plan" that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — to 20 percent lower than 1990 levels by 2012 — by increasing public transportation use, recycling rates, renewable power and energy efficiency.

In May, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, worried about dry winters in his famously wet city, announced that more than 130 U.S. mayors have signed an agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by meeting or beating the Kyoto targets.

"The mayors, the corporations and even the governor of California are starting to show global leadership in the face of a vacuum," said Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network. "It's the new trend, and it's out of pure desperation."

Now, mayors from around the world are joining America's city leaders to fight global warming and other environmental problems. By signing the Urban Environmental Accords, the mayors will pledge their commitment to eco-friendly urban development in seven areas: energy, environmental health, transportation, urban design, urban nature, waste reduction and water.

Mayors more in tune?
Organizers say global environmental problems must be addressed on the municipal level because half the world's population now live in cities — a proportion that's projected to rise dramatically this century. And cities consume about three-quarters of the world's resources while producing three-quarters of the world's pollution.

"Unlike the federal governments that seem to find a lot of wiggle room in treaties, mayors are much more responsible to their constituents," Rogers said. "Mayors are much more in tune with what people want."

The accords spell out 21 specific actions mayors can take to make their cities greener, and signers promise to annually adopt at least three new policies, many of which involve economic incentives or legislation. In the energy arena, for instance, cities can adopt policies to increase use of renewable power, boost energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions — actions that can help cities save money and clean up the environment.

"It's a real roll-up-your-sleeves approach," said Susan Ode, outreach coordinator for Local Governments for Sustainability. "They're actions that truly will help and can be implemented by local governments and communities."

While the accords are not legally binding, organizers hope that community activists will hold the mayors to their promises once they return home.

"I hope that at the end of the day we're not just signing a piece of paper," Newsom said, "but making real commitments to take real action."