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Rio+20 and the U.S.-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability

January 11, 2012


  • Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Izabella Teixeira, Minister of the Environment, Brazil
  • Israel Klabin, President of the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development (Moderator)



On January 11, Americas Society/Council of the Americas hosted a panel discussion to discuss the priorities and challenges of the Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability (JIUS), its relevance to the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) framework, and how the international financial sector can shift investment practices to spur more innovative urban investments around the world. The main vision of the JIUS is to mobilize large-scale investment with portfolios of green infrastructure, technology services, and products. This will improve efficiency, which is important to consumption and energy integration in the atmospheric agenda. The three speakers explained the major themes of the JIUS for Brazil and the United States in order to achieve economic and environmental sustainability in the urban context, which will be discussed further at the Rio+20 conference in Rio de Janeiro this year.

Green Economy, Sustainable Environment

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson began the discussion by praising President Dilma Rousseff and President Barack Obama for bringing the two nations together to work on environmental issues. She discussed a meeting held in August 2011 to create the JIUS, and underscored the importance of a green economy in the context of a cleaner, more sustainable environment. The JIUS initiative acts as a platform to generate economic growth, create jobs, eradicate poverty, and protect the environment. It also addresses the challenges and opportunities of developing urban infrastructure to promote sustainable development with economic, social, and environmental benefits. As leaders of the two largest democracies and economies in the Western Hemisphere, Obama and Rousseff recognized that Brazil and the United States have the opportunity to advance this joint initiative, but both countries also have a great responsibility.

Jackson stated that environmental and economic action is necessary, and mentioned a Miami redevelopment housing project as an example of an underserved community in need of sustainable solutions. She toured the housing project, and discovered a company working on water-saving plumbing fixtures to save tax dollars and to teach the values of water conservation and energy saving. This project was not only subsidized by public funds, but also saved an estimated 5 million gallons of water and $50,000 on utility bills.

Because the number of people living in cities recently surpassed the number of people living in rural areas, Jackson projected that over the next 30 years, the majority of global population growth will become more concentrated in cities. Thus, growing cities will require more food and clean water, new power and energy sources, infrastructure to deliver clean energy, affordable housing and transportation, and waste disposal systems.

“More than a Partnership of Two Governments”

Jackson said that “challenges are matched by opportunities that strengthen our environment.” She discussed a federal partnership between the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to generate economic opportunity in an effort to alleviate poverty and create jobs. The federal governments in the U.S. and Brazil must connect with companies and work with financial institutions to ensure growth and employment, she stressed. “But we are learning,” Jackson said. “This is more than a partnership of two governments. There are many practitioners, but they must perfect that work with collaboration.” Government and private corporations must focus on the same goals and reconnect communities to revitalize and restore natural resources, she explained. In this transition from rural to urban areas, it will be important to tackle pollution and entice city planners, academics, urban developers, and financial institutions to be a part of collaborative change. Jackson concluded that in a broad movement towards sustainable city creation, “we must change communities, [and] then we can build.”

Upgrading Efficiency

Minister Izabella Teixeira also reflected on the collaboration between Brazil and the United States, and she discussed the need for varied agenda. In terms of the environment, Brazil has a political objective, holds conferences, and has people with the right values and preparation, she said. However, she stated that Brazilians must respect the political agenda while simultaneously looking for healthy objectives to create a major cultural, economic, and social change. Teixeira underscored the importance of debate and awareness in the middle class, and the need to mobilize and respond to challenges of preservation and security.

In overcoming the challenge to create a cleaner, safer, and more efficient environment while living in a green economy, moderator Israel Klabin claimed that Brazil does more than taking a “realistic” approach. He said that the mindset is that companies that endanger the environment should not be allowed to operate in Brazil. The government is imposing its rules to its upmost ability and with an institutional framework implemented in urban areas, he claimed. Jackson reflected on an anecdote about a small mining town choosing between a healthy environment and healthy economy. Its people burned coal and emitted mercury in the air, but the rhetoric was: “If we get rid of the coal, our electric bills will go up.” This ultimatum must be addressed, but the rhetoric is wrong, said Jackson. Citizens should know that they are not being asked to make a choice; environmental sustainability is mandatory.

Teixeira said that Brazil “must understand what pollution means and its role,” and gave an example of how the government is taking action. Two years ago, Brazil’s Minister of the Environment approved a voluntary campaign to reduce the use of plastic bags, and since then, Brazil reduced plastic bag consumption by 5 billion, or 12.5 percent. This is the job of not only the public sector, but also the private sector, non-profits, and academics to ensure cleaner environment practices, Teixeira claimed. She also pointed out the direct correlation of women’s roles as a solution to environmental issues. She explained that half of the children born in Brazil are unplanned or unwanted. However, if women had more power to choose, they would have fewer children, thus reducing each household’s food, energy, and water consumption.

Teixeira also discussed the importance of technology to both Brazil and the United States. Technology plays an important role in achieving a green economy and acting as an economic driver, but Teixeira admitted that many programs and solutions are only affordable for the elite. Jackson suggested that governments should work with technology and innovation companies by collecting data and giving the data to professionals who can provide solutions. The EPA has tried this approach by holding a competition for data applications to relay relevant data to professionals who are able to influence communities’ energy choices, consumption of goods, and living standards.

The Main Vision

Both Jackson and Teixeira concluded that the main barrier for Brazilians and Americans is sustainability. The green movement is about being small, diffuse, and community-focused, and targets products, technologies, and services that are designed for those communities. The JIUS serves as an example of how to make the green approach attractive to the investors, and as a model to mobilize large-scale action to communities. Applying urban sustainability practices can bring lucrative benefits: affordable homes, jobs in technological and energy innovation, a stronger economy, savings for communities and businesses, and new opportunities for businesses in a global marketplace. The inclusion of health concerns, biodiversity, and economic sustainability are issues that must be addressed properly, but the level of priority and attention each issue receives will determine the ability to achieve urban sustainability.