I’ve been to many great cities around the world, but none surpass Rio’s stunning setting. The city sits along the coast, where ocean waves splash up on wide, white sand beaches. Across the way, mountain peaks line Rio’s winding roads. It’s winter here, though it sure doesn’t feel like it. Temperatures are in the mid-70s, with a cool breeze in the evenings. Not a bad place to spend a few days.
In some ways, this beautiful setting could make you forget about the environmental challenges we face, which is, after all, the reason I’m here. This week, some 50,000 people are expected to gather in Rio to advance solutions around sustainability. That sounds like a good idea, but, like many others, I’m struggling to figure out what exactly it means.
A Split Conference
To a large extent, the conference is split into two parts: negotiations around the formal text, which will become the official outcome document for the summit, and the informal sessions. In the former, negotiators are wrangling over the words that will hopefully culminate in a meaningful global agreement on sustainability. In the informal sessions, groups and individuals are meeting to discuss the issues of the day– and will hopefully come up with ideas that will help us make headway on the big environmental challenges, like climate change, water scarcity, and deforestation, among many others.
WRI is quite active on both fronts. Many of my colleagues are pushing to strengthen the language in the official outcome document. Others are leading or participating in events, working with leaders in business, government, and civil society to identify opportunities or come up with new strategies. In total, WRI experts are organizing or presenting in more than 25 events.
Sustainable Development Dialogues
On Saturday, we participated in the Sustainable Development Dialogue on Fighting Poverty. Manish Bapna, WRI’s interim president, participated, along with representatives from nine other organizations. It was a diverse panel ranging from elite academics to indigenous advocates. Perhaps not surprisingly, the dialogue itself was equally broad: the speakers discussed 10 ideas about how to advance sustainability efforts to fight poverty and promote economic development.
WRI's Interim President, Manish Bapna, at the Sustainable Development Dialogues event. Photo credit: Michael Oko, WRI
After three hours, the picture was becoming pretty blurry. Everyone had good intentions, but it was hard to coalesce around a unified vision.
Toward the end, Manish raised his hand to provide some closing thoughts. He spoke eloquently about the challenge before us. As he explained, the Rio negotiations are not headed in a positive direction. Despite the scale of the issues, the emerging text appears to be weakened in key areas, potentially even moving backward from previous conferences, such as Johannesburg in 2002 and the Rio “Earth Summit” in 1992.
My ears really perked up as Manish described how the blame rests partly within the mainstream environmental movement. It’s clear that in recent years, environmental groups and their supporters have bolstered their case based on scientific understanding and economics. However, we’ve recently fallen short when it comes to pushing for action based on rights, fairness, and equity. Looking at other recent popular movements – like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall St. – it’s clear that the environmental movement could do more to tap into people’s underlying passion that can, in turn, garner the attention of public officials. Without such pressure, it’s hard to imagine political leaders taking the urgent action on sustainability that we need today.
A Time for Action
This perspective resonates here at Rio+20. Despite the impressive set-up, there continues to be a yawning disconnect between the urgency of the challenges we face and the urgency for action.
As we enter the second – and final – week at Rio, we will need world leaders to step up with more ambitious commitments along with concrete solutions. I’m hopeful that the side events, informal meetings, and networking together can produce some positive results, along with fresh thinking and a renewed energy.
As heads of state prepare to arrive in Rio, they need to realize that the battles should not be focused inside the negotiating rooms. The battles should address how to shake off the clutches of the vested interests as we enhance environment protection and find a path forward for sustainable economic development. They should come here to make sure that people and the planet can live together. That’s what they should be fighting for.
There’s no doubt that this summit won’t solve everything. But there’s still a real opportunity to make sure Rio+20 will be remembered for more than just the pretty scenery.