In 1992 the United Nations hosted the Earth Summit, a conference on the environment and development, in Rio de Janeiro. Ten years later the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in 2002 in Johannesburg. Now, twenty years since the original conference, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio + 20, will be held in Brazil from June 20-22. The conference is intended to draw heads of state and other government representatives, participants from the private sector, and non-governmental organizations to address the connected issues of poverty, social equity, and environmental protection on an increasingly crowded planet.
Rio + 20 has two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development. The conference is focused around these two themes under seven priority areas: jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security, water, oceans, and disaster readiness. The Earth Summit in 1992 closed with adoption of Agenda 21, a blueprint to rethink economic growth, advance social equity, and ensure environmental protection. The expectation is that governments attending Rio + 20 adopt practical measures for implementing sustainable development.
In advance of the summit, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) published its fifth Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5) report. The report assesses what it considers the 90 most important international sustainability objectives. GEO-5 indicates that only four have seen substantial progress: eliminating the production and use of ozone-depleting substances, removal of lead from fuel, improving access to clean water, and increasing research to reduce marine pollution. Some progress was shown in 40 goals and little or no progress was detected for 24 goals, including climate change, fish stocks, desertification, and drought. According to the UNEP, this is evidence that global treaties need to have quantifiable targets in order to succeed. As a result, the agency is calling for specific targets at the Rio + 20 Conference. As the UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner says, “GEO-5 reminds world leaders and nations meeting at Rio + 20 why a decisive and defining transition towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient, job-generating Green Economy is urgently needed. The scientific evidence, built over decades, is overwhelming and leaves little room for doubt.”
While it is clear much work needs to be done to strengthen our global environment, political realities may impede significant progress. In May, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that negotiations leading to the Rio + 20 conference had been “painfully slow.” According to an article in The Guardian, it’s been difficult to engage world leaders. With President Obama focused on his re-election and European leaders focused on the financial crisis, negotiations have been left to personnel without the political power to make decisions that would result in a breakthrough agreement. According to the article, Ban Ki-moon said that negotiations were bogged down in narrow national interests, overshadowing the need to set the world on the right track for sustainable growth. For some, this has painted the Rio + 20 conference with skepticism and it is questioned if significant progress can come of the meetings.
While political realities have the potential to overshadow the conference, there is in fact opportunity. Governments, the private sector, and civil society have an opening to establish global targets recognizing the ecological limits of the planet and work to establish initiatives and incentives that operate within those boundaries. Indeed, the long term health and viability of the planet is at stake and it will take true leadership to let go of myopia and create a path that looks beyond the next election cycle or annual earnings report.
Emily is a Senior Research Analyst with Portfolio 21 Investments. She has 9 years of experience in the environmental field.