Rio+20 welcomes heads of state, but change driven at local level

Leading up to the Rio+20 conference, there was skepticism an agreement on a green future could even be drafted before global leaders arrived. But real action is taking place at the community level.

Sergio Moraes/REUTERS
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff (L) shaks hands with Sha Zukang (C), secretary-general of the Rio +20, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon looks on at the opening of the Rio+20 United Nations sustainable development summit in Rio de Janeiro June 20.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio +20, opened today with heads of state and top diplomats from around the globe converging in Brazil's sultry Rio de Janeiro.

Leading up to the conference, there was serious skepticism that an agreement on a green future for global leaders to mull over could even be drafted. Now that it has, with input from over 190 countries, there is criticism that the text doesn't go far enough. The 49-page document, called the Future We Want, can be read here. It addresses issues ranging from showing how a green economy contributes to sustainable development to the role gender equity plays. 

The Rio+20 players sought to maintain an upbeat mood as the most important environmental event of the year kicks off. “We think the text contains a lot of action,” said Rio+20 Secretary General Sha Zukang, in a UN press release. “And, if this action is implemented, with follow-up measures taken, it will indeed make a tremendous difference in generating positive global change.”

In the same statement, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota described the agreement as a blueprint for the future. “We are giving indications to the future, a new vision for the future. This is a common vision for the future, a vision for sustainable development. It was a puzzle that was not easy to complete.”

But the criticism is resounding. Activists want concrete goals, not just promises about promises. They are asking for governments to indicate specific target dates to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and define achievable actions for corporations.

"This summit could be over before it's started. World leaders arriving tonight must start afresh. Rio+20 should be a turning point," said Oxfam spokesman Stephen Hale at the kick-off of the conference, held 20 years after the first earth summit in Rio in 1992.

Yet beyond the text and the debates over semantics, there is real discussion and action taking place. As Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations at The Nature Conservancy, put it in a statement: "There are two conferences going on here – they are half a mile apart physically and a universe apart in tone and potential impact. One is the negotiators who are rehashing old text and one is the communities, countries, and companies who are making tangible commitments to solve the sustainability challenges they face,” he said. "The real question is how to make the ideal of sustainable development real.”

It is in urban centers where perhaps most change can be made, as cities are responsible for 75 percent of the planet's greenhouse gases. And among them, it is megacities that face some of the gravest challenges. We recently wrote about the sustainability of megacities, looking specifically at Mexico City, Mumbai, and Lagos, Nigeria. The problems they face providing water for their citizens or disposing of waste are emblematic of the challenges the globe faces, and their solutions are key to the world's future well-being.

Cities are already implementing concrete measures, like switching to more efficient lighting or electric-powered transport. And they also have an edge over the Rio +20 negotiations, said Michael Bloomberg, New York City's mayor, at a side event on cities in Rio. They "aren't arguing with each other,” he said. “We're going out there and making progress."

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