Managing The Planet: The Road to Rio+20 | Wilson Center
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Managing The Planet: The Road to Rio+20

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“We still see people thinking about the environment as if it is something apart. The idea of a synergy, a balance of development still, I think, eludes us both in theoretical, but especially in practical terms. And that is what Rio+20 is about,” said Ambassador Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, under-secretary for environment, energy, science, and technology at the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Rio+20 conference next year, marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 UN Earth Summit. It will be an opportunity to generate new answers to the question of how to collectively develop in a more sustainable and balanced way, said Figueiredo. Jacob Scherr, director of strategy and advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Richenda Van Leeuwen, senior director for energy and climate at the UN Foundation, and Thomas Lovejoy, biodiversity chair at the Heinz Center for Science and professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University, joined the ambassador at the Wilson Center on November 16 for a discussion about preparations for the upcoming conference. The event was part of the “Managing The Planet” seminar series, coordinated jointly by George Mason University and the Wilson Center. 

Sustainable Development Goals

Rio+20 should reaffirm the sustainable development vision of the first Earth Summit, said Scherr, “of our ability to deal with all of these issues at once: to move forward on economics, and dealing with poverty, of being equitable, and protecting and preserving the environment for future generations.” 

Figueiredo said he sees the concept of a “green economy” as an “instrument to promote sustainable development and eradicate poverty. And in that sense, it seems clear that we will not find one green economy as such, but probably as many green economies as countries in the world, because each country will find its way of using that kind of tool.” 

One proposal for the conference, supported by Brazil, is to devise a set of sustainable development goals, which would “embrace the Millennium Development Goals and instill a certain sustainability viewpoint to all of them,” Ambassador Figueiredo said. Furthermore, they would be global in nature, rather than geared towards developing countries, providing a vision for collective development. 

“The Millennium Development Goals were good in some ways [but] they were fairly weak on the environmental side,” said Thomas Lovejoy. “This is a chance to actually improve on that, to really bring these elements together.”

Action and Accountability

Through “sustainable development dialogues,” Brazil is working to provide a new mechanism for civil society input at the conference. According to Figueiredo, Brazil hopes to “create a bridge between those who understand the issues, those who have a deep knowledge of the issues, and those who have the power again to do something about it.” 

“We have been talking about these issues for 40 years, what we really need is a meeting that, as the Secretary General recently said, is a conference about implementation…to really start moving us down the path towards a sustainable future,” said Scherr. 

“You might argue that everything that happened 20 years ago was an absolute failure, but of course it was not, because an awful lot has happened in the interim, it’s just that it hasn’t happened on a big enough scale or fast enough,” Lovejoy said. 

“What gives me a lot of reason for hope going into Rio+20 is there are a lot of very practical, very pragmatic efforts involved,” he said. 

Richenda Van Leeuwen pointed to the UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative as a potential agenda to follow. The initiative has three objectives: ensuring universal access to modern energyservices; doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and doubling the share of renewable energyin the global energy mix. 

“We are using Rio, and the seminal opportunity that it represents, as a mechanism to be able to bring these new commitments together…to show that there is an opportunity for concrete actions,” Van Leeuwen said.

A robust accountability framework is vital to that effort, Van Leeuwen said. “It’s easy to make a pledge at a pledging conference, but really what we are looking at is a whole new way of doing business, a whole new action agenda,” she said. “So we are very optimistic and very excited about the opportunity for Rio, but Rio not as an end really, but as a beginning and as an opportunity to be a springboard to get much further global action.”

Drafted by Theresa Polk, edited by Schuyler Null and Paulo Sotero.