Rio+20: Down to the Wire

Jun 12th, 2012 | By | Category: Rio+20 Earth Summit

By Suzanne York,


Time is running out. You still have much work to do – perhaps too much work. But you must persevere. The stakes are very, very high – for people and the planet… for peace and prosperity.”

~UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, in his address to delegates finalizing the Rio+20 Earth Summit Outcome Document

As UN negotiators scramble to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and finalize the action plan for the Rio+20 Earth Summit, what is most needed are innovative and positive approaches to address the world’s most pressing issues. All the imploring by the Secretary-General won’t mean much if only the old ways of doing things are all that are discussed.

Almost everyone knows that Ban Ki-moon is right, that the world needs to act now to halt severe climate changes and environmental degradation. Yet, almost no one expects much will be accomplished in Rio. Agreement on the draft text is still far off, as countries remain divided and firmly in their respective camps. It seems like the more of these big international gatherings that take place, the more real action is pushed off into the future (read: future generations).

Rating high on the UN agenda is promoting the green economy, though there isn’t even an agreed upon definition of what this means. The other main initiative is to build a framework for sustainable development, though wasn’t that supposed to be done in the last twenty years since the ’92 Rio Earth Summit? Moreover, there is a big concern by some groups that a green economy equals green-washing and this is just an attempt to make money off of nature rather than seriously protecting the ecosystem.

And the ecosystem and our communities need leaders to come together with viable solutions. The latest news on the climate front is that greenhouse gas levels have passed 400ppm (parts per million), what scientists call a troubling new milestone for carbon dioxide.”

The world is fiddling as Rome burns and talks begin in Rio with low expectations. Andrew Simms of the New Economic Foundation in the U.K. recently put it well: “Once again, most of us will feel like spectators to the biggest debate about life on earth: whether or not to maintain convivial environmental conditions for human civilization.”

With over 500 side events schedule before and during the UN conference, plus a civil society-run Peoples’ Summit, there is reason to inject some hope into Rio+20. The forecast may be bleak, but people are not powerless and there is always a way to create change. Again, quoting Simms, “For people waiting to taking the first step, Nelson Mandela’s famous observation is well remembered, that often we are held back more by fear of success and fully realizing our power and abilities, than being helpless victims of circumstance.”

Concrete and lasting change is more apt to come from outside the tedious official UN discussions. Youth are empowered to be heard and save their futures. Women too are out in the forefront creating better lives, communities and environments, along with indigenous peoples.

A unique and intriguing coalition that has come together in a call to action is Elders+Youngers, an association working to build inter-generational dialogue on the future of the planet. Two highly-respected members, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have written of their concern that any chance for a sustainable future could be thrown away at the Rio meeting.

Success, according to these elders, depends upon the following: 1) intensify efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015; 2) keep sustainable development at the top of the global agenda through the creation of a sustainable development council; 3) greater support for the Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative; and 4) faster progress on gender equality and empowering women.

What will also help is for all the varied interest groups to truly work together – to combine forces/ideas/efforts and no longer continue to silo individual issues. Protecting the planet is the common cause.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called for ambitious leadership to seize this “once in a generation opportunity” to transform ideas and aspirations into bold action “for the sake of our planet and our children”. Let’s hope this call is heeded in Rio.

Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies/

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