Forum for the Future of Democracy, Yerevan, October 2010
Session 3A Sustainable communities for a living democracy
Yerevan, 19 October
Speech by Emin Yeritsyan, Representative of the Chamber of Local Authorities
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me congratulate the Forum organisers for the excellent choice of theme. A Europe of Sustainable Communities, a goal voiced by John Prescott, then Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Warsaw Summit of the Council of Europe five year ago, is at the heart of the action of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. Sustainable local and regional communities are the future of European democratic development.
The Congress has been working extensively on promoting sustainability of our communities in its economic, social and environmental aspects. This work includes our action on climate change, a major challenge for municipalities and regions, which are the first to feel the impact of global warming. We have also integrated into our work the human rights dimension, as the exercise of the economic and social rights is inseparable from sustainable development issues, and the right to a healthy environment underpins the concept of sustainability.
Our approach is based on two key premises: that sustainable development of local and regional communities is the foundation of national and European democratic development as a whole, and that local and regional authorities have a crucial role to play in this process: first, in implementing national policies and measures in their communities; second, in providing input into national and European policy-making; and third, in coming up with their own innovative action at territorial level.
Today, a greater part of measures for adapting our communities to climate change and mitigating its consequences come from local and regional authorities. They are also the biggest polluters in Europe and the key decision-makers as far as the reduction of carbon emissions is concerned – in their decisions on spatial planning, local economy, public transport and residential heating materials. The Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, and the Summit of Local Governments in June last year, showed examples of remarkable ingenuity of local and regional authorities and demonstrated their resolve to act to prevent the worsening of the situation.
To help spread good practice, the Congress has made a series of proposals aimed at increasing adaptive capacities of municipalities and regions, including through risk assessment, and developing a new energy culture, involving local energy production and the use of alternative and renewable sources of energy. In response to the urgency raised by climate change and the need for a secure supply of energy at affordable prices, the Congress’ 2008 recommendation called on local and regional authorities to develop a new energy culture incorporating regions’ energy performance. This would depend on the use of renewable energy sources, improvement of energy efficiency, and reorganisation of means of transport.
We need a new energy culture, a sustainable energy policy which includes increasing the energy performance of territories, energy efficiency and renewable energy. The current energy crisis and financial crisis have certainly the same origin: the failure of the free market to offer prices that would accurately reflect the risks taken in the medium and long term by those involved in finance and energy.
A number of local initiatives in the energy field leading to a low carbon future deserve our attention, for example:
- the efforts made to help people to make appropriate choices when refurbishing or building their houses;
- the development of co-generation heating systems, re-using hot water from industrial production, as well as green waste from woods, parks and green areas as alternative energy to heat swimming pools, schools, houses and public structures;
- and more generally, the promotion eco-label "Zero carbon" schools and public buildings.
Indeed local authorities must set the tone, set a good example and point the way in order to build low carbon cities with a high quality of life. They must act as catalysers of local stakeholders and give support to the most dynamic ones to build policies that will change the unsustainable course set so far. This means a considerable change in governance and the review of most habits and practices. But it is the only way forward.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Climate change has been one of our major political priorities as it has greatly exacerbated the problems already facing our societies. However, in the Congress we believe that action on climate must go beyond adaptation and mitigation, beyond reducing carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. This is really about good democratic governance, and has therefore a direct link to the question of democracy and its future. Beyond the alarming effects of climate change, we must not forget the wider environmental degradation and the increasing difficulties in energy supply.
Good governance is at the heart of sustainable development of territories and communities and their resilience to natural disasters. The current financial and economic crisis should not be an excuse to reduce resources dedicated to these issues. On the contrary, this crisis is an opportunity to rethink our approaches and encourage new behaviour, an opportunity to move forward towards a greener and more innovative action.
It is recognised that climate can have a negative impact on human rights, which are often enhanced by non-climatic factors, such as discrimination and unequal power relationships. This is why we have stressed human rights' issues in our work and insisted, in Copenhagen, on including the human rights dimension into any action on climate. We supported Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly's call to recognise the right to a healthy environment and to draft an additional protocol on health and environment to the European Human Rights Convention.
Finally, next week we will adopt texts on coastal towns and cities tackling the threats from the sea, in which we second the proposal for holding a conference to consider the issue from various angles – such as human rights and legal affairs, the environment, social cohesion, etc. – as advocated by the Council of Europe Steering Committee for Human Rights.
The Congress believes that adaptation is a social, political and economic process, not just a technical exercise. We call for a greater recognition of the vital role that local and regional authorities play in preparing the future of our societies and protecting socially vulnerable groups.
Local and regional authorities need to act in all sectors of responsibility: as energy consumers, service suppliers, investors and spatial planning officials. We must mobilise the population and the local players. At the same time, national governments must support local and regional action on climate and the efforts of local and regional authorities to promote a low carbon future, by granting them the necessary resources.
This brings me to a key principle for the sustainability of our communities: the principle of financial equalisation. It is not a popular term. To put it bluntly, we need to share and to know how to share. It is natural that our communities are all different and have wildly varying levels of wealth and natural resources. However, for society to function properly, we need a minimum of cooperation and solidarity.
If there is a higher incidence of poverty and unemployment in one area, this should not mean that there are fewer hospital beds and fewer teachers. Those areas which are more affluent than the average need to support their neighbours who have more than their fair share of problems. Our sustainability will depend on how intelligently we organise our communities, knowing that it is in the interest of all to pool our resources to attack the problems where they exist, even if they are not in our own backyard. Nowhere is this more apparent than with climate change. To stop the world's rainforests disappearing, we must all contribute to ensuring that those countries which still have rainforest do not lose out by protecting them.
How can we stimulate the evolution of innovative democratic practices? Part of the work of the Congress is to act as a clearing house for good practice. We are working increasingly with national associations of local and regional authorities to bring together and disseminate creative solutions to the problems that they face. To achieve sustainable communities we must pull together. I believe that if we combine our efforts, then we can build a future that will be secure for our children.