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SALT LAKE CITY — The world is watching Utah — and not for the reasons Salt Lakers, who see the smog settle in along the Wasatch Front during winter and sometimes summer months — might think.
Thousands of people from across the world are visiting Salt Lake City this week for the 68th Annual United Nations Civil Society Conference, the first time the conference has come to U.S. soil outside of New York City. On Monday, the first day of the conference, visitors gathered in a Salt Palace Convention Center conference room to learn what two Utah cities are doing to promote sustainable and eco-friendly practices.
Salt Lake City and Park City staffers were center stage, showing off what the two more progressive cities in the red state of Utah are doing to combat carbon emissions and promote renewable energy.
For Park City, it’s a fleet of all-electric buses. It’s a City Council-approved net-zero energy performance requirement for all municipal buildings. It’s an ambitious goal to run on 100% renewable electricity for city operations by 2022, and for the whole community by 2032 — the most ambitious sustainability goal in North America and perhaps the world, according to Luke Cartin, the city’s sustainability manager.
“And this is in a state that’s official rock is coal,” Cartin said.
For Salt Lake City, it’s its policy to move to 100% renewable energy by the year 2030, its growing network of electric charging stations, its work to encourage recycling, food security programs and more. It’s also Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s successful effort to encourage the U.S. Conference of Mayors to sign on to a call for a national price on carbon emissions.
Then there’s also work at the state level, with partnerships between nonprofit and private sectors, such as the Utah Climate Action Network, a coalition of governments, research institutions, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, corporations and individuals working to address climate change in Utah.
Advocates also worked with the GOP-majority Utah Legislature, Gov. Gary Herbert and Rocky Mountain Power to pass HB411 earlier this year, the first law of its kind in the U.S., to establish a framework for how communities can work with electricity providers through existing regulatory structures to develop clean energy resources.
It’s because of all this — and more — that Sarah Wright, director of Utah Clean Energy, and Tyler Poulson, Salt Lake City’s sustainability program manager, said Utah can be a red state to lead on environmental initiatives. And they hoped that could inspire more communities in other red states to follow suit.
“Utah can be the conservative state that acknowledges the gravity of this issue and takes meaningful steps to address it,” Poulson said. “This is our unique opportunity ... and here’s why we can be the state that breaks through on climate change.”
It has to do with that smog Salt Lakers know so well, he said, pointing to polls indicating good air quality is consistently among Utahns top priorities.
Wright said Utah has shown, after about 150 Utah local leaders last week signed a declaration to have tough conversations about climate change and solutions, that even in states like Utah, not particularly known for progressive politics, solutions can take shape.
“It’s easy to marginalize one specific voice or faith or political group or business group, but if you come out as a diverse group and you agree to the premise that we need to talk about climate, we need to understand the gravity of the issue ... that’s a powerful tool,” she said.
“We truly believe that Utah can be a conservative state that breaks through the partisanship and moves forward on solutions, but we couldn’t do it without empowering the voices of our leaders to do this,” Wright said.
Monday’s launch of the United Nations Civil Society Conference in Salt Lake City marked a “historic” gathering for both the city and the United Nations — the first time the conference has come to the U.S. outside of its headquarters in New York.
Earlier Monday, Biskupski and Mike Mower, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Gary Herbert, welcomed an estimated 6,000 people from 138 countries to the Salt Palace Convention Center.
The work that we will do together here over the next three days is extremely important and ambitious. We are here to learn from each other, to share ideas, and to strengthen a global coalition to transform our cities and communities to be more inclusive and sustainable.
–Alison Smale, UN under-secretary-general for global communications
The United Nations Civil Society Conference’s goal is to create “inclusive and sustainable communities” across the world in a time of political strife, fears of the effects of climate change, and social inequalities.
This year’s conference, which runs through Wednesday, is concentrating specifically on its stated “sustainable development goal 11” to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030.” The conference underscores the aim to make communities socially just and economically equal places, particularly focused on environmental policies and social equality.
The topic is among the 17 sustainable development goals the U.N. General Assembly adopted in 2015. Others include ending hunger and poverty, reducing inequality, and promoting decent work and economic growth — all to be achieved by 2030.
Biskupski, Salt Lake City’s first openly gay mayor, said during the opening plenary that building “inclusive and sustainable” communities is an issue “close to my heart and is central to what I’ve been working on during my time in office.”
Speaking to a crowd of thousands, Biskupski touted Salt Lake City’s policy to move to 100% renewable energy by the year 2030. She drew applause when she repeated a phrase she and other progressive U.S. mayors have been using to promote sustainable local practices.
“The world can’t wait, and neither will we,” she said.
Biskupski said “at no other time in history” have cities and local government played such an an important role in the “health” of the world, noting that the United Nations estimates that by the year 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas like Salt Lake City, making urban planning critical to the globe’s future.
“As cities become denser, they become more diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion, physical ability, sexual orientation and economic status,” Biskupski said. “For mayors and local leaders like myself, this growth presents great challenges and tremendous opportunity.”
Biskupski said she and other local leaders look to efforts like the United Nation’s Civil Society to help lift individual voices from communities, especially youth, to “get current leaders to listen and act with you by our side.”
“There is no (one) generation that will ensure the world’s cities and communities are sustainable and inclusive,” Biskupski said. “This is a mission and responsibility for all of us, and is evolving through discussions like we are going to have here today through this conference.”
Gov. Gary Herbert did not attend Monday’s opening plenary, but his deputy chief of staff Mike Mower welcomed the United Nation’s Civil Society on his behalf.
“With more people than ever living in urban areas,” Mower said, challenges with infrastructure, traffic and “growing pains” have never been more “complicated.”
Mower said “it is up to us” to find “sustainable, progressive and forward-thinking” solutions to keep cities and communities thriving.
“How many of you are dedicated and committed to working together with others to help build a more sustainable world for ourselves and our children?” Mower said, asking for a raise of hands from the crowd. Thousands of hands went up.
Scores of global leaders are at the conference. Among them is Alison Smale, the United Nations’ under-secretary-general for global communications.
Smale called Salt Lake City a “great setting” for a “global conversation on inclusion and sustainability.”
“The work that we will do together here over the next three days is extremely important and ambitious,” she said. “We are here to learn from each other, to share ideas, and to strengthen a global coalition to transform our cities and communities to be more inclusive and sustainable.”
Smale said the ideas gleaned from the conference will be used to inform United Nations goals and policies into the future.
In a videotaped statement, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres welcomed the crowd. In his remarks, he urged everyone to work together, and conference comes “especially at a time when civic space is shrinking worldwide and intolerance is on the rise.”
The annual conference promotes work not on just governmental levels, but also within the private sector and nonprofits to promote humanitarian, educational, health, human rights, and environmental endeavors.
Hanko Kiessner, CEO of Salt Lake City-based Packsize, a local cardboard packaging innovator, addressed the conference’s crowd to urge the private sector to play its part to encourage sustainable practices. Last week, Kiessner lead a tour of his company’s headquarters for officials from the U.S. Department of Energy and members of the agency’s Clean Cities Coalitions.
As he spoke, Kiessner held a particle counter in his hand, noting that it reads on high-pollution days in Salt Lake City up to 36,000 particles, while only 300 is the healthy limit.
“As a representative of the private sector, I want you to know that we the businesses have to play a leading role in creating sustainable communities,” he said, drawing cheers. “We the businesses have to become zero emission and zero pollution.”
Kiessner added: “Businesses have to do everything we can voluntarily, but we also have to request meaningful and productive regulations from the public sector so we all have a level playing field to compete on.”
Many other speeches centered around combating nationalism and promoted “multilateralism,” or the alliance of multiple countries to pursue a common goal.
“We are all humans. We all live on the same Earth,” said Vlada Yaremenko, co-chair of the Conference Planning Youth Subcommittee.
“This gives me hope for a better future,” she said.
In a press briefing after the morning session, Biskupski called the conference a “truly historic opportunity” for Salt Lake City.
In a time when the U.S. is politically divided on national levels — and a time when Salt Lake City’s Democratic leaning leaders and GOP-controlled state clash over issues including the Utah Inland Port Authority — Biskupski said Monday’s conference shows Utah has “always been a welcoming state,” even if politics vary at the state and city level.
“Sometimes the city and the state are not in alignment on inclusivity and what that looks like or feels like,” Biskupski said. “But ... we do get it. Maybe not always, but we do get the value of and importance of inclusivity.”