Tue, Apr 14, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Citizens for a clean economy: Public input needed in debate

By Monica Araya

Over the past 20 years, environmental, energy and climate policies have been decided behind closed doors — with little input from the people who will be most affected by the outcome of the negotiations.

Policy design has been driven by technocratic considerations that ignored or was simply uninterested in ordinary people’s priorities. As a result, clean air, renewable energy and green spaces have all too often been sacrificed to the notion that environmentally friendly legislation increases costs and red tape for businesses and ultimately hurts the economy.

The good news is that a new pattern of citizen participation is emerging, especially in developing countries, with new voices and fresh ideas entering the debate. Around the world, citizens are demanding that their governments listen to them about environmental issues and put their needs and priorities first.

For years, the debate around environmental action in the US and Europe was characterized by a focus on abstract principles and by political infighting. To some extent, this was understandable. Opposition to environmental action — from the fossil-fuel industry, political parties and portions of the media — has been formidable.

However, the result was a discussion that was far removed from the issues that are most important to ordinary people. Instead of discussing how ineffective public transport and polluted air was making life worse for billions of people, the talk centered on carbon trading, emissions trajectories and the industrialization of China.

Fortunately, the discussion is now being brought back down to earth. In less than 35 years, about 66 percent of the global population will live in cities. Much of this urban growth will occur in developing countries, especially in Africa. In Latin America, nearly 80 percent of people already live in urban centers.

GOVERNMENT POLL

For city dwellers, the environment can be an existential priority. If droughts continue to threaten the water supply of Sao Paolo, for example, Latin America’s most populous city could be at risk of urban failure. This crisis — and others like it — provides an opportunity for citizens to take control and deploy innovative solutions that might inspire others.

When national and municipal governments ask people about their priorities and needs, the answer is clear. Chile’s government set a precedent in the region by meticulously mapping citizens’ priorities on the environment and climate. According to the government’s poll, air pollution is Chileans’ top environmental priority (33 percent), followed by waste (21 percent) and noise (11 percent).

Costa Ricans also see air pollution as an environmental priority (22 percent), followed by waste (20 percent) and water (17 percent), according to a poll conducted by the UN Development Programme.

In China, environmental protection is increasingly becoming a top public concern, as evidenced by a journalist’s recent self-financed film about air pollution, which attracted 200 million viewers in a single week.

In today’s world, people expect more from their countries and cities than growth and shopping centers.

OPAQUE DECISIONS

An Inter-American Development Bank poll of 5,000 citizens in Bogota, Buenos Aires, Lima, Mexico City and Sao Paulo revealed that they want more transparency in city government, more participation in decisionmaking, and a better quality of life. This poll, along with those from Chile and Costa Rica, shows that citizens understand that climate change will affect them. They want governments to do more, not less, to protect the environment.

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