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Rio+20

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This year has been one of those worst-of-years and best-of-years. In its failures, there are signs of hope.

An unprecedented stream of extreme weather events worldwide tragically reminded us that we’re losing the fight against climate change. For the first time since 1988, climate change was totally ignored in the U.S. presidential campaign, even though election month, November, was the 333rd consecutive month with a global temperature higher than the long-term average. A WRI report identified 1,200 coal-fired power plants currently proposed for construction worldwide. The Arctic sea ice reached its lowest-ever area in September, down nearly 20 percent from its previous low in 2007. And disappointing international negotiations in June and December warned us not to rely too much on multilateral government-to-government solutions to global problems.

But 2012 was also a year of potential turning points. A number of new “plurilateral” approaches to problem-solving came to the fore, offering genuine hope. A wave of emerging countries, led by China, embraced market-based green growth strategies. Costs for renewable energy continued their downward path, and are now competitive in a growing number of contexts. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that global investment in renewable energy was probably around $250 billion in 2012, down by perhaps 10 percent over the previous year, but not bad given the eliminations of many subsidy programs, economic austerity in the West, and the sharp shale-induced declines in natural gas prices. And the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy, coupled with the ongoing drought covering more than half of the United States (which will turn out to be among the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history) may have opened the door to a change of psychology, in turn potentially enabling the Obama Administration to exhibit the international leadership the world so urgently needs, as many of us have advocated.

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Sarah Martin and Gayatri Gadag also contributed to this blog post.

Rio+20 may have ended more than three weeks ago, but the environmental and development communities are still feeling the disappointment. One of the biggest shortcomings was the lack of collaboration between citizen groups (the “grassroots”) and the policy research organizations that influence policymakers (the “grasstops”).

As WRI’s Manish Bapna points out, “A gap and lack of coordination between grassroots and grasstops institutions was evident during the Rio+20 summit. Advancing sustainable development in a meaningful way hinges on bridging this gap.” In other words, creating political will and building the constituency necessary to support the policy changes being advocated for requires collaboration between different segments of civil society.

Expanding Clean Energy Access

Bridging the grassroots-grasstops divide is especially necessary when it comes to clean energy access, an issue that received much attention at Rio+20 as a result of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4A) initiative. SE4A is a global initiative that aims to mobilize action from all sectors of society to support universal access to modern energy services, improve energy efficiency, and increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. However, actually expanding clean energy access will require cooperation between think tanks, institutions, governments, and the citizens who are most in need of sustainable energy access.

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This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Where is the Steve Jobs of sustainability? The business leader with the big, disruptive ideas—and the force of will—to achieve for sustainable production and consumption what Apple’s visionary chief did for global technology and information?

This question springs strongly to mind after attending the Rio+20 conference.

Unlike the original Earth Summit 20 years earlier, business leaders were everywhere at Rio 2012. And with governments failing to make headway at the UN-led forum, there was much talk of businesses taking a greater lead in fixing the world’s environmental and development challenges.

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More than a year ago, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon likened Rio+20 to a “free-market revolution for global sustainability,” calling for the event to inspire innovations that move the world toward more sustainable pathways to economic growth and development. Later in the year, U.N. Commission for Sustainable Development Chair, Sha Zukang, explained that the main difference of Rio+20 from earlier conferences “will be the sharp focus on renewing political commitments and on implementation…” Said Sha, “My message is: come to Rio ready to commit.”

The Rio+20 conference wrapped up on June 22nd, so the big question is: Did governments come through with these serious commitments?

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This piece originally appeared in The Guardian.

Big business seemed to be everywhere at Rio+20, arguably more visible than the 100 or so heads of state and government, who arrived for the final few days.

Hundreds of business initiatives were announced through groups including Business Action for Sustainable Development and the UN Global Compact's Corporate Sustainability Forum. And the corporate leaders who flocked to Brazil made all the right noises. "We have to bring this world back to sanity and put the greater good ahead of self-interest," Unilever CEO Paul Polman told the Guardian.

But how much substance lies below the surface of these declarations?

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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.

Many stories came out of the Rio+20 proceedings; Jo Confino’s blog in The Guardian is an excellent place to review what happened. But now that Rio+20 is behind us and the 50,000 government officials, business representatives, and activists have gone home, one expectation is clear: Leadership from the private sector is critical to advancing sustainable solutions in the coming years.

The question is: Are business leaders on board with this strategy? Is transformative action possible or desirable from a business perspective? We can’t speak for all businesses, but on June 17th in Rio, WRI partnered with Forum for the Future, a UK-based NGO that works with companies on sustainable business practices, to present a panel featuring corporate leaders that are currently taking steps toward "next practices."

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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.

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Last week’s Rio+20 conference failed to yield strong sustainability commitments from corporations. As Manish Bapna, interim president of the World Resources Institute (WRI) stated earlier this week, companies in Rio didn’t “grasp the fundamental recognition that the planet is on an unsustainable course and the window for action is closing.” The gap between where we need to get to avoid climate change’s worst effects and the actions companies are willing to take to get us there have never been further apart. While governments have an important role to play in setting policies to reduce emissions, legislation on its own will never be enough to put us on a development trajectory that is sustainable. Leadership from business is urgently needed.

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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 and here.

Since the close of the Rio +20 conference last week, participants, experts, and observers the world over have tried to determine what, if any, real outcomes were achieved. Amidst all of the controversy and frustration over commitments and lack of progress, something significant did happen at Rio: Forty-five major companies representing hundreds of billions of dollars in annual revenue called for “much greater action by Governments” to achieve global water security.

These major companies endorse the U.N.’s Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, an initiative designed to assist companies in the development, implementation, and disclosure of water sustainability policies and practices. Their recent call at Rio+20 for better water governance is an important step forward for water protection—after all, it’s not every day that such a wide array of leading corporations asks governments to assert more control. It’s an indicator that water scarcity is creating widespread risks that are too complex for even the most powerful of companies to manage alone.

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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 and here.

During the informal sessions of the U.N.’s Rio+20 conference on sustainable development last week, Rio de Janeiro city officials and the World Bank jointly launched a very timely project: the Rio Low-Carbon City Program. Under this initiative, the city will introduce low-carbon strategies like bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors, upgraded urban rail systems, bikeways, and an integrated solid waste management system in order to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The program came about due to the city’s landmark 2011 municipal climate change law, which requires Rio to avoid 20 percent of 2005 GHGs emissions by 2020. This cut will amount to a reduction of 2.27 million tons of carbon dioxide from the business-as-usual scenario.

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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." Check Insights this week and next for more post-Rio+20 coverage.

As we look to make sense of the Rio+20 conference that concluded last week, we can confidently say that transportation drove its way to the top of the sustainable development agenda. It’s a far departure from the last global development conference 10 years ago in Johannesburg, when transportation was conspicuously absent from the agenda and the resulting Millennium Development Goals. After the Rio+20 conference last week, transportation is now poised to become a significant part of the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals, which are beginning to take shape as one of the conference’s major outcomes.

With transportation intricately tied to so many of the global mega-trends today—climate change, traffic fatalities, city growth and congestion, poverty, and air pollution—it was exciting to see sustainable transport finally included in development discussions. Here are a few of Rio+20’s major transportation outcomes:

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Rio+20 glided to a close today. Many people are still milling about, but many others are already heading home. It will take some time to understand what this conference truly means. WRI’s Manish Bapna called it a “missed opportunity.” That said, we know that we cannot give up. The stakes are too high for that. And perhaps it’s even possible that the embers here will grow and evolve into the solutions that we need for a more sustainable world.

As the dust settles, our experts will continue to provide new information and analysis on this blog. And be sure to check out our latest posts on governance, cities, and transportation.

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The main focus of the formal negotiations at Rio+20 is the outcome document, “The Future We Want.” The text, which was approved earlier this week and will likely be agreed upon by heads of state and U.N. officials, outlines a global framework for sustainable development and building a green economy. The text will have an impact on areas ranging from climate change to business to transportation, but the document’s biggest implications for governance is its references to Principle 10. By including this Principle and modest action, the outcome document offers glimmers of hope that citizens—including poor and marginalized communities across the globe—will no longer fall victim to environmentally degrading, exploitative development projects.

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Climate change may not have been on the official Rio+20 agenda, but that didn’t stop mayors from megacities around the world from making major headway on the issue. At the Rio+20 conference on Tuesday, the network of C40 city leaders announced new data showcasing the fact that these cities' initiatives could cut 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions by 2030.

At the decidedly urban event—perched in a colorful, high-tech auditorium miles from Rio+20’s official negotiations in the suburbs—Mayors Bloomberg (NYC), Paes (Rio de Janeiro), Park (Seoul), and Tau (Johannesburg)—as well as President Clinton (via video) and other leaders—made a compelling case for global action through cities. The mayors asserted that cities are proving to be the most effective government entities in addressing global climate change. In addition to announcing goals to reduce 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions by 2030, leaders cited already-taken actions that will cut 248 million tons of greenhouse gases by 2020. The cities’ achievements contrast with international negotiations (and some national governments), which have been unable to agree to binding CO2 reduction targets.

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One lesson from Rio+20 is you shouldn’t confuse what’s happening in the hallways and negotiating rooms with what’s taking place on the ground. A great example of this is the new bus-rapid-transit line that has just started running in Rio de Janeiro. The BRT has gotten a lot of attention this week– not least because New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s visit to Rio de Janeiro brought focus to the city’s transportation system.

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to join Mayor Bloomberg and Rio’s Mayor Paes, along with my EMBARQ colleagues to visit Rio’s operations center. Mayor Bloomberg was primarily here to promote the C40 Climate Leadership Group’s announcement of C40 cities' actions to reduce 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions by 2030. The Mayor also cited city-level actions already taken that will cut 248 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

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It’s the final week of Rio+20, and WRI’s experts are on the ground for all the action. Each day, I’ll bring you highlights of what’s on the horizon. Check out the details below on the exciting things happening tomorrow. And be sure to visit the full list of WRI’s Rio+20 events.

We are heading into the last day of the conference. I'd say we are coasting in, because it seems that there won't be much drama around the resolution. I don’t think many people are really satisfied with the formal outcome, which isn't nearly ambitious enough. But it was certainly a busy, stimulating week with lots of opportunities to meet people, have interesting conversations, and wrestle with the big issues. I would also say, once again, that's it has been enjoyable to be in Rio - though the sun has turned into rain. A metaphor? Perhaps.

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This past Sunday, WRI’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol team conducted a session at the Rio+20 event, “The Green Economy: Driving Business Value and Competitiveness.” The session included great dialogue between business leaders, policy makers, and WRI experts, and featured one very significant declaration: The British Ambassador to Brazil, Alan Charlton, announced GHG Protocol’s groundbreaking new work with Brazil’s agriculture sector. For the first time, GHG Protocol will develop a guidance that allows Brazilian companies and individual farms to measure, report, and manage greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

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Rio+20 has not quite concluded, but we’re rapidly approaching the end line. Somewhat unexpectedly, the Rio+20 outcome document was largely finalized yesterday afternoon. NGOs have weighed in on what this means, and most are rightfully frustrated. Almost across the board, the document is much too soft and vague to solve today’s sustainability challenges. Much of the text is merely a reaffirmation of previous agreements or worse, a regression from those agreements.

That said, we’ve believed all along that the more groundbreaking action at Rio+20 would be outside of the formal process. Certainly, after attending many side events and informal meetings this week, I’ve come across numerous examples of civil society organizations, entrepreneurs, companies, and others who are moving forward with innovative approaches to address sustainability. Perhaps more importantly, outside of Rio, many national and local governments are genuinely pushing ahead on sustainability in exciting ways.

The picture at Rio is much like the world today: complex, incremental and not rising to the challenges in front of us.

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It’s the final week of Rio+20, and WRI’s experts are on the ground for all the action. Each day, I’ll bring you highlights of what’s on the horizon. Check out the details below on the exciting things happening tomorrow. And be sure to visit the full list of WRI’s Rio+20 events.

Today, the heads of state arrived and the formal conference opened. RioCentro, the main conference area, has gotten very crowded with delegates, representatives, media, and others. Ironically, some of the drama has gone out of the area since the outcome document text is more or less finalized.

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This is a Q&A with Manish Bapna, WRI's interim president. The story originally appeared in the Brazilian publication, "Revista Epoca," and was written by Luciana Vicaria.

LV: In your opinion, what are the biggest environmental problems?

MB: Today’s environmental challenges are largely interconnected. Two-thirds of the ecosystem services (the benefits that people derive from nature that underpin economies and livelihoods) are degraded . This degradation is expected to accelerate in the first half of the 21st century, exacerbated by the effects of climate change. By 2025, up to two-thirds of the world’s people are projected to live in water‐stressed conditions. Food security is another pressing concern. To feed the world’s nine billion people (which we’re expected to pass by mid-century), the U.N. Food and Agriculture (FAO) organization projects that food availability needs to increase by at least 70 percent.

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