By Stephen Leahy, IPS News, May 25, 2012
Think of Rio+20 as the hothouse to grow the green ideas and values humanity needs to thrive in the 21st century.
No one is expecting, or even wants, a big new international treaty on sustainable development said Manish Bapna, interim president of the World Resources Institute, a global environmental think tank based in Washington, D.C.
"The important action will be on the sidelines of the formal negotiations," Bapna told IPS in an interview.
Blocs of countries, civil society organisations and representatives of business will meet, create coalitions and make commitments on specific issues and on regional concerns.
"There could be some exciting specific commitments coming out of Rio," Bapna said.
Perhaps the most important outcome from Rio+20 would be to put to rest the erroneous belief that protecting the environment comes at the cost of economic growth when it is in fact the opposite. Without a healthy, functioning environment, humanity loses the benefits of the environment's "free products": air, water, soil to grow food, stable climate and so on.
"One of the big hurdles to a sustainable future is that officials in many countries think they can't afford to move onto a more sustainable pathway," he said.
Bapna hopes Rio+20 will generate a "new narrative" - a wider understanding that there is no viable alternative to the transition to low-carbon, resource-efficient economies that alleviate poverty and create more jobs.
As many as 50,000 people are expected to participate in hundreds of events at the Rio+20 Earth Summit spanning two weeks in mid-June in Rio de Janeiro. More than 130 world leaders will attend, including Russia's Vladimir Putin as well as the prime ministers of India, Manmohan Singh, and China, Wen Jiabao.
U.S. President Obama has not confirmed his attendance at the 20th anniversary of world's first Earth Summit that gave birth to three major environmental treaties on climate change, biodiversity, and land degradation and desertification.
In just about every environmental category things have only become worse since 1992. However, a few countries like Germany understand the environmental and economic necessity of shifting onto a more sustainable path, Bapna said.
"Germany is making the single-most important effort in the world to fight climate change by de-carbonising their economy," he noted.
Germany is committed to double its energy and resource productivity by 2020, which will generate news jobs and enhance its competitiveness in a world with fewer and more expensive resources.
Consumption of fresh water, oil, copper and gold are on pace to triple by 2050, according to a 2001 U.N. report. Except there simply aren't enough resources left on the planet to manage that.
About 22 percent of Germany's energy comes from renewable sources and its goal is to reach 35 percent by 2020, and grow to 80 percent by 2050. Major efforts in improving energy efficiency have been the key in making this shift.
Rio+20 needs to engage people on the sidelines with a new "story" about the imperative to live sustainably with examples of how new markets and green jobs are being created, Bapna said.
The official Rio+20 negotiations are going so badly that an extra week of talks will be held next week. Those negotiations involve what's called the "zero draft". It is intended to be the roadmap for sustainable growth, often called the green economy, and will likely include a set of sustainable development goals.
However, like all U.N. agreements, every word requires unanimous approval by all nations, which is extremely challenging.
"We recognise that we can not continue to burn and consume our way to prosperity. Yet we have not embraced the obvious solution – the only possible solution, now as it was 20 years ago: sustainable development," said United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon in a statement Thursday.
Ban acknowledged the negotiations were "painfully slow" and personally pushed for the extra week of talks urging countries to look beyond their national interests.
"Rio offers a generational opportunity to hit the reset button: to set a new course toward a future that balances the economic, social and environmental dimensions of prosperity and human well-being," he said.
With less than 30 days left to the high-level segment, there is still "no agreed definition of what the green economy is," said Craig Hanson, director of the People and Ecosystems Program at World Resources Institute.
There is growing consensus about the need for green growth and development but people are uncertain what a green economy actually looks like. Germany offers an example with its clean energy efforts that have created 370,000 jobs, Hanson told IPS.
Niger's success in reversing desertification in the Sahel is another, he said.
Negotiations on how to get to greener economies have been a struggle with some countries putting their national interests ahead of what might be best for the planet and future generations he acknowledges.
Phasing out the hundreds of billions of dollars governments dole out in fossil fuel subsidies annually would be best for future generations but it is unclear what countries are prepared to do, said Bapna. "Will they reaffirm previous promises or make firm commitments at Rio? We just don't know."
The U.N.'s Sustainable Energy for All initiative has serious momentum and a bloc of countries could make firm financial commitments to help bring clean energy to world's poorest people, he added.
About 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity and 2.5 billion use traditional biomass for cooking, which has many health and environmental impacts. Bringing electricity to those without out would cost 30 to 40 billion dollars a year - a fraction of the amount spent on current fossil fuel subsidies.
The world has changed since 1992. Things are a lot less predictable. There is no overarching green vision uniting all countries.
"What we do know is this is the critical decade. The world needs short-term commitments to act," said Bapna. "Rio will be a pretty remarkable event.... We need confidence and hope to come out of Rio."