In Rio this week up for discussion and negotiation (mostly negotiation) is a 49-page draft document that aims to establish clear sustainable development goals and action to achieve them.
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as Rio Plus 20, marks 20 years since the Earth Summit, which at the time was the largest gathering of heads of state ever to talk about environmental challenges.
This time, the agenda has been softened to be about sustainable development, with an emphasis on development. Indeed, some people here don’t seem to believe that environment really plays any part in the conference. Earth isn’t anywhere isn’t mentioned – despite that this is clearly supposed to be a follow-on to the earlier event.
Yet it’s hard to imagine how the discussion of sustainable development can take place without careful consideration of our natural environment.
The reality and the urgency is that our world’s population is expected to rise from its current 7 billion to more than 9 billion in 2050. That’s scary in a world where already an estimated 3 billion people don’t have clean water to drink and 14 percent of our planet, to adequate food.
According to the final version of the Rio Plus 20 Common Vision submitted today under the title, The Future We Want, one in five people, over 1 billion people, still live in extreme poverty. By 2050 two-thirds of our world will live in cities.
So where we find food and water for another 2 million people in 38 years is the crux of the challenge and one that really can’t be denied, regardless of political leaning.
And we live in Asia, where most of that future population growth is expected to occur. This places the challenges front and centre for those of us engaged in work to combat environmental challenges and with communities without adequate means to survive.
Despite the enormity of the task at hand, however, few here in Rio are optimistic that real change will come from or be led by the conference.
The Brazil delegation worked hard in recent days to ram through a document that is in essence hollow, fearing more than anything a repeat of the Copenhagen disaster when no one could agree on anything.
I guess the sense is that if they can at least agree on nothing meaningful that’s better than agreeing on nothing at all over the three-day official proceedings, which begin Wednesday?
The conference document finalized today was, “the result of intensive and prolonged negotiations,” according to the press release, and is a “compromise text,” in which, “countries have had to both give and take to achieve progress.”
The text is to be approved by heads of state at the conference conclusion on Friday. Significantly, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel will not be present in Rio.
Still, the text does include a commitment at least to the concept of sustainable development and recognition that eradicating poverty is one of our greatest challenges. It emphasizes the urgency around “freeing humanity from hunger and poverty”.
The text establishes the clear linkages between sustainable development and the environment, between sustainable development and the means to bolster our struggling economies, and emphasizes the value of public-private partnerships.
Sadly, the hope that this translates into government action is absent from the jaded community spending long hours being bused among several distant event locations in fancy and frigid coaches that have nothing to do with sustainable development other than collective transport.
Part of the skepticism also derives from the fact that the earlier Rio conference ended with two treaties aimed at curbing emissions of greenhouse gases and conserving biological diversity that have since languished amid lack of political will.
There is, additionally, a certain exhaustion generally with the promotion of international frameworks to make sweeping change toward environmental progress.
Those just have been too hard to achieve in our economically challenged world that doesn’t yet seem to link better development, protection of our natural world and an improved economic environment.
like the posh buses, the main conference venue itself is a reflection of misunderstanding of the challenges we face. The huge Riocentro is two hours in traffic from Ipanema and Copacabana, where most participants are staying.
There, air conditioning blasts through huge buildings that are no model of efficiency – either in space or energy consumption.
At the same time, Rio Plus 20 is largely white and male – at least this is particularly true of the official and business delegations. Amongst the NGO community, women are better represented.
At the alternative youth summit in Flamengo, three hours from Riocentro in traffic and closer to Rio’s pulsing centre, the situation is considerably different.
Here, the youth and community-connected people are basing themselves, including many of the smaller NGOs – and diversity is evident in the variety of national dress, skin hues and music that accompanies many events.
In a long stretch of tents, people gather for animated discussion or to listen to seminars on topics related to conservation and sustainable development. Here, the environment is very much present although it’s hard to see where, concretely, the discussion will lead.
Official delegations are noticeably lacking these communities – the NGOs and youth. This is despite the final text emphasizing wide agreement among business, NGOs and government.
Perhaps one bright light here in Rio seems to be the talk on many levels of the importance of valuing our natural resources. Companies, NGOs and governments alike seem to recognize the need to bring environmental value into economic decision-making.
And engaging the private sector, governments, communities in this important dialogue, in partnerships to achieve results, is key to real change. As always in large gatherings it’s the back-room learnings and discussion that are the real drivers for change.