São Paulo: Ready to Lead into a Greener Future?

As climate negotiations were getting under way last week in Cancún, Mexico, I found myself some 6,600 kilometers to the south, in São Paulo, Brazil. I had been invited to speak at the opening session of the “Bolsa Internacional de Negócios da Economia Verde” (BINEV)—the first International Green Economy Business Exchange.

In Cancún, negotiators are preoccupied with a negative: how to reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions. This is a task seen in all too many quarters as a threat to comfortable lifestyles (in the West) or to development (in the so-called emerging economies).

But at BINEV, the focus was on the positive: on the opportunities to render energy supply, transportation, construction, sanitation, agriculture, forestry, tourism, and other sectors more sustainable, and to create jobs in the process. The local State Environment Secretariat brought together experts from Brazil and abroad for four days to discuss ideas, concepts, and initiatives.

São Paulo's Luz train station, recently restored and used heavily by commuters. But the city—and Brazil more generally—offers only limited rail and transit services relative to population size. A greener economy will need to entail greater rail investments. Photo by Michael Renner

São Paulo state is the main economic powerhouse in Brazil. And its capital city of São Paulo is home to some 11 million people, with perhaps another 11 million in adjacent areas of the larger metropolitan area. Altogether, the state’s 645 municipalities are inhabited by more than 40 million people, more than any other Brazilian state. The state of São Paulo accounts for almost one-third of Brazil’s GDP, and its main city single-handedly for 12 percent.

Construction activity in the city seems as ubiquitous as the cars, trucks, and buses that jam its avenidas and ruas. On my last day there, I hiked up a rainforest trail in the north to reach Pedra Grande—the great rock—a perch that offers a breathtaking view of São Paulo’s seemingly endless expanse of high-rise office and apartment buildings.

Pedra Grande offers a spectacular view of São Paulo. Photo by Michael Renner

People of some 70 different nationalities mingle in São Paulo. But it is the city’s economic forces that make for a wide chasm between rich and poor. São Paulo has the world’s second-largest private helicopter fleet after New York City (in 2008, 462 copters were used for some 70,000 flights), and even a cursory look on Google Earth reveals a large number of helipads atop the business district’s skyscrapers. But like Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo features extensive favelas, or slum areas, sometimes in close proximity to the richer areas. In the southwest, for example, the wealthy neighborhood of Morumbi and the Paraisópolis slum uncomfortably rub elbows.

São Paulo state has adopted a goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020, relative to 2005 levels. It was against this backdrop that researchers, business people, and government representatives came together to discuss ways to create a low-carbon, greener economy.

Name tags for the conference—made of cotton twine with embedded flower seeds—are intended to have a second life as carnations. Photo by Michael Renner

The conference organizers aim to offset the event’s carbon emissions by planting a variety of tree species in the Itu region. They are also connecting environmental and social issues by donating solar panels to a civic association that works with low-income children in the city’s southern periphery. Conference name tags—made of cotton twine with carnation seeds embedded—are to be recycled into flowers! Conference tote bags are made of 100-percent recycled materials.

Like many other cities around the world, São Paulo faces a substantial challenge in trying to become more sustainable. But if BINEV is any indication, there is great vision and commitment to take on this daunting task. Coming years will put to the test the city’s motto, Non ducor, duco: “I am not led, I lead.”

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