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Rio's mayor: We need a 'total change of paradigm'

From Brazil, Eduardo Paes says the "urban agenda" must be at the forefront of international climate agreements.

Looking from his coastal "Marvelous City" to COP21 in the "City of Lights" this winter, Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes aims to push carbon reductions and resilience before the United Nations.

In August, Rio announced that it is the first of 136 cities to meet the requirements of the global Compact of Mayors. In other words, the metropolis of 6.5 million has been keeping track of greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change, and creating an action plan in response to those findings.

"Mayor Paes has turned Rio de Janeiro into a global model for action on climate change," said former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a statement. "The fact that Rio has become the first city in the world to fulfill the requirements of the Compact of Mayors speaks to his commitment to the issue — and his determination to lead from the front." As the U.N. special envoy for cities and climate change, Bloomberg helped in 2014 to launch the compact, a coalition that includes the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability.

Mayor Paes hopes to lead a resilience renaissance in Rio, and has even delivered a TED Talk called "The 4 Commandments of Cities." Here, he highlights the next steps in this direction.

GreenBiz: What role can cities play in negotiating an agreement in the Paris conference this fall?

Paes: People live in cities, not states or nations, so they have to be taken into consideration in the agreements. As mayors, we are closer to people than heads of state. Around the world, mayors have taken the lead and shown the actions through networks like C40. I have personally seen actions in cities like New York and Copenhagen, but also in developing cities as Rio and Beijing.

[Learn more about urban resilience at VERGE San Jose, Oct. 26 to 29.]

We are preparing a big event in Paris in parallel to the U.N. meeting where we are going to show strong commitment. Currently, we are working on the next step, which is giving the means to further actions in cities, as for example, funding and leveraging resources to low carbon development

GreenBiz: How do you see Rio de Janeiro's climate commitment helping support Brazil's intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs)? Have you communicated with national policymakers about how your plan supports the national commitment?

Paes: International negotiations are still too focused on the macro level. They must pay attention to cities in order to be effective. Beyond the difficult situation in the political and economic scenarios, it is important for Brazil to establish good policies and start to think more about the future. We want the urban agenda to be included in the international negotiations.

GreenBiz: How do you balance efforts to ensure Rio's resilience with efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions? Which is a more pressing priority?

Paes: We must do both. There is a false opposition between adaptation and mitigation. Cutting emissions is a crucial action for a city to become more resilient. We need to curb emissions while we adapt infrastructure and urban operations to the changing global climate. As a city on the coastline, we care deeply about this.

GreenBiz: Unlike many cities, Rio's primary greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation and waste management sectors. How do you curb emissions in these sectors?

Paes: Rio is a developing city. Our urban planning in the past century prioritized cars instead of mass transportation or pedestrians. That resulted in traffic, which is one of the major problems in the Brazilian and developing cities in the world. What we are doing in Rio is to bring a total change of paradigm, from high-carbon individual mobility to favoring pedestrians and the use of mass transportation.

With the upcoming 2016 Olympic Games, we in Rio managed to attract a good amount of investments, both from the private sector and the federal government. We used this opportunity to build four new BRT lines, which are dedicated corridors for articulated buses, expand the subway, deliver a Light Rail Vehicles and double our bike lanes. In 2009, only 18 percent of the population of Rio had access to high-capacity transportation. By 2017, this share will rise to 63 percent.

On waste management, we were able to improve the environmental quality of the waste generated in the city. We closed the Gramacho open landfill, which was an environmental crime, and switched to a new Waste Treatment Center. Instead of releasing methane gas in the atmosphere, now we are collecting biogas to generate energy. This action will avert about 1.2 ton of CO2 emissions in 2016.

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