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Rio+20 in the Rear View: A Missed Opportunity for Climate Change Action

WRI's experts will continue to provide commentary and analysis of the results of the Rio+20 conference through our series, "Rio+20 in the Rear View." For more posts in this series, see here, here, and here.

Going into Rio+20, we knew that climate change wasn’t going to be a major focus on the formal agenda – yet its presence was amply felt. Simply put, you cannot create a more sustainable future without addressing the climate challenge.

From forests to energy, oceans to the green economy, our changing climate is already having an undeniable impact—and the recent signs are not good. Just taking the United States as an example, so far this year we’ve seen record-breaking spring temperatures, with another major heat wave sweeping through. In Colorado, dry, hot conditions are leading to massive wildfires. In the Northeast, the U.S. Geological Survey is reporting that sea levels are rising even faster than previously expected. These conditions come as global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise – and yet for the most part, governments are not putting policies in place at the scale needed to address this problem.

So, how did climate fare at Rio+20?

Countries stated more clearly than ever in Rio+20's outcome document that society is facing a major crisis and sounded their "profound alarm" about ever-rising emissions. They went on to note "with grave concern" the gap between current government commitments to reduce emissions and what is needed to keep global average temperature increase within 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

However, Rio as a whole was a missed opportunity to shift course on global energy and embrace a low-carbon pathway. Despite calls for action and protests by many civil society organizations, governments refused to address global fossil fuel subsidies, which continue to prop up this unsustainable industry while slowing the shift to cleaner energy sources. At the same time, text that had included goals for renewables and energy efficiency was deleted from the final version of Rio+20’s outcome document, “The Future We Want.”

That said, there were some bright spots:

  • WRI announced a new initiative to help businesses measure greenhouse gas emissions from Brazil’s agriculture sector. Agriculture accounts for around 20 percent of Brazil’s emissions, so it is vital to understand where these emissions come from and how we can reduce them. Carlos Klink, Brazilian Secretary of Climate Change and Environmental Quality, endorsed the announcement.

  • New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the C40 delegation pushed ahead with city-level action to reduce emissions. Bloomberg noted that we cannot afford to wait for national governments to move on climate. “We aren’t arguing with each other over reduction targets, we’re making progress individually and collectively to improve our cities and the planet,” he statedin a call with reporters ahead of the conference . The C40 cities are on track to reduce their annual emissions by 248 million tons from business as usual by 2020, and could exceed one billion tons by 2030.

  • Many countries signed up for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative and others committed to fund it.

  • I participated as a judge in a contest , sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme and Siemens, to develop effective, innovative solutions to local sustainability challenges. Six teams of students presented – Tsinghua University, China; Stellenbosch, South Africa; University of Rio, Rio de Janeiro; Cambridge, England; Technical University of Munich; and an international team. The winner was a student from Tsinghua University who highlighted a new way of collecting biofuels through reused vegetable oil in order to reduce pressure on deforestation.

  • In another inspiring example, 17-year-old Brittany Trilford won the “date with history” contest, where she had an opportunity to address heads of state at the opening of the summit. As she said in her speech, “We are here to solve the problems that we have caused as a collective, to ensure that we have a future.” She injected a dose of much-needed passion into the conference.

More Needs to Be Done

Despite such signs of progress, the global picture remains hazy. Based on the outpouring of criticism from NGOs and the media, world leaders have a long way to go to satisfactorily address sustainable development and climate change. They will need to take more tangible actions – and raise their ambition – if we are going to overcome these global challenges.

As we look ahead to the UN climate conference in Doha, Qatar later this year, it’s clear that the pressure is building both nationally and on the international climate change negotiations to accelerate progress and deliver more concrete results. We need to continue identifying the bright spots, but what’s more, we need to turn them into real engines of progress.

Let’s get moving. As Brittany said to world leaders, “I stand here with fire in my heart. I’m confused and angry at the state of the world, and I want us to work together now to change this.”

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