4 ways to save Rio+20 summit on sustainable development

As 'Elders,' even our optimism is being seriously tested by the lack of urgency about the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development in June. To succeed, the summit must start by setting goals, just as the UN did with its 'Millennium Development Goals' – with some targets now being met.

Felipe Dana/AP
The sun sets in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the upcoming Rio+20 conference, billed as a 'historic opportunity' to build a greener future, appears to be going up in smoke. President Barack Obama won’t be there, and the leaders of Britain and Germany have bowed out. Entire delegations have canceled. The conference is the follow-up to the UN's 1992 Earth Summit, also held in Rio, which helped put climate change on the world agenda.

As “Elders,” we have been involved in public life for quite a long time. We know that change takes time and don’t get too worried when progress seems slow.

But even our optimism is being seriously tested by the lack of urgency in the run-up to the UN Rio+20 summit on sustainable development June 20-22. The meeting provides a historic opportunity to chart a sustainable future for the world. But at the moment, there is a real chance that the opportunity will be thrown away.

Everything we have heard, thus far, suggests agreement on the way forward remains out of reach. Countries are divided on both goals and means. Unless these divides are bridged soon, the outlook for a successful summit seems bleak.

We are therefore deeply concerned. The success – or failure – of Rio will have deep repercussions, define the aspirations of today’s 3.5 billion young people, and shape the world we leave for future generations.

It was, of course, at the first Earth Summit 20 years ago in Rio that our generation of world leaders accepted that a focus solely on economic growth was no longer possible. In a remarkable break with the past, we recognized that, in a world of finite resources, economic development had to go hand-in-hand with social progress and protecting the environment – while also respecting every country’s right to develop.

In the last two decades, the idea of sustainable development has revolutionized the thinking of millions. The understanding of our shared responsibility helped lead to 189 world leaders agreeing to the Millennium Declaration in 2000, which paved the way to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for 2015.

These goals include specific targets, such as cutting in half the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day. In many countries, we have seen determined action on the goals, for instance, reducing pollution and investing in renewable energy. Businesses now routinely look beyond the bottom line to consider the wider social and environmental impact of their decisions.

But the more we learn, the more we understand the gravity of the challenge. And we have not yet seen the necessary courage or political will to turn good intentions into effective, collective action. That political will and that courage is the common responsibility of the world’s citizens – only through us can it become the will of governments.

Until then, the results of our inaction are all around us. Unsustainable patterns of production and consumption are still imposing excessive demands on resources such as water. We continue to alter our climate by polluting our atmosphere.

Economic inequality between countries, and within them, is growing. The financial crisis and high food prices add to the challenge, and 1 in 7 of the world’s population won’t have enough to eat today.

Extreme poverty increases the degradation of the environment. It is hard to focus on the long-term when you face a daily struggle to feed your family.

The Rio summit gives international leaders the chance to come together to tackle these challenges and accelerate the progress of the last two decades. The agenda is broad, but we believe there are several areas where attention should be focused.

First, summit participants must learn from the success of the UN millennium goals. Agreed targets drive collective action. These efforts must be intensified in the years remaining until the 2015 deadline.

We believe setting “sustainable development goals” that address the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of development in a comprehensive way can galvanize efforts to grow economies and at the same time tackle poverty and inequality and protect the environment. These goals should be universal and have implications for every country, but in different ways.

Second, those attending the summit need to find ways to ensure sustainable development stays at the top of the global agenda. The world does not yet have the right mechanisms to deliver this goal. We believe that the creation of a sustainable development council – with a prominent position in the United Nations, a clear mandate, and the necessary capacity and authority – could make a real difference to developing, monitoring, and implementing policies to advance sustainable development.

Third, there must be stronger backing for the UN secretary-general’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative. The lack of universal access to modern, sustainable energy has a major impact not just on climate change and poverty but also health.

Smoke from wood, dung, and coal from cooking and heating remains one of the world’s major public health problems. Major investment is needed to accelerate the move away from carbon fuels and to improve energy efficiency.

Finally, true sustainable development hinges on much faster progress toward gender equality. Across the world, women still face barriers that prevent them from playing their full role in economies, parliaments, and societies. If we waste half the world’s talent and potential, we simply cannot succeed.

It is all our responsibility – as businesses, members of civic society, and as individuals – to help grow our economies in a way that benefits all and safeguards our planet for future generations. But only governments together can create the conditions in which these other efforts can succeed. It is why Rio+20 is a time for courage and vision.

Gro Harlem Brundtland was Norway’s first female prime minister and is a former director general of the World Health Organisation. She is a member of the UN secretary-general’s Global Sustainability Panel.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso was president of Brazil from 1995 to 2002.

Both authors are involved in Elders+Youngers, an intergenerational dialogue on the future of the planet initiated by The Elders, a group of eminent global leaders working together for peace and human rights.

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