“Rio, Déjà vu” – Reflecting on Rio+20

“Rio, Déjà vu” – Reflecting on Rio+20

The 2012 Fall Series of the National Climate Seminar kicked off last week at Bard Center for Environmental Policy with a conversation with Hunter Lovins and Aimée Christensen regarding the outcomes and missed opportunities of the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development held this past June in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The title of the NCS conversation, “Rio, Déjà vu?” alluded to the outcome of the first Earth Summit held in Rio in 1992 that culminated with high expectations for the future but ultimately led to little action on the sustainable development front.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Climate Change, speaks at the UN Women Leaders Forum ahead of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo Credit: UN Women/Fabricio Barreto

Sustainable development was first defined in 1987 under the leadership of Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Climate Change. The widely hailed Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” and the publication of the commission’s report, Our Common Future, led to the original Rio Summit with the participation of 108 heads of state. The first Rio conference in 1992 ended with much optimism since it established the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (that eventually led to Kyoto), Agenda 21, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and launched the phrase ‘sustainable development’ into the popular lexicon. Going into Rio+20, many hoped that world leaders would renew their commitment to sustainable development and make significant commitments to act.

Aimée Christensen

To highlight some of the brighter points of the Rio+20 conference, Aimée Christensen discussed her role as Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General’s High Level Group on Sustainable Energy for All. Started by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, this initiative puts forth a potential model to solve macro-scale energy challenges going forward in 2012, the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Currently, over 1 billion people around the world live without access to reliable electricity. In response, the UN has set a firm target for achieving universal access to modern electricity and cooking by 2030, to double global rate of efficiency, and to double the percentage of renewable energy in the global mix. Additionally, the UN plans to establish Sustainable Development Goals; however, given the fast-approaching deadline for the Millenium Development Goals in 2015 what result these proposed goals will have is uncertain.

Christ the Redeemer ('Cristo Redentor') atop Corcovado mountain, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Christensen and Lovins also discussed the shortcomings of Rio+20 including the lack of enforceable commitments. Countries only agreed to voluntary commitments with little promise of concrete action due to pressure from the US and others that wanted to ensure they could sign on to the final document but did not want to make new funding commitments. Although Rio+20 produced a massive document (126 pages!), the government agreements fall short since they lack hard targets and timetables. The lack of leadership by individual governments led to the resulting voluntary commitments since representatives were hesitant to push for strong language or serious commitments. Due to the significant pressure on country representatives to reach an agreement, multilateral negotiations on the scale of Rio+20 or the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen are often ineffective as they result in the lowest common denominator.

Surprisingly, the private sector was possibly the most committed to taking action at Rio+20 as part of the corporate sustainability forum. Lovins and Christensen noted that major corporations have been stepping up to make sustainability a priority by including commitments by Microsoft to go carbon neutral, PUMA’s sustainability commitments (after realizing that the cost of the company’s water use and carbon emissions cost was equal to profitability), and Walmart’s audacious sustainability goals.

“Among the commitments and actions agreed upon by private sector corporations, small and medium-scale enterprises, Microsoft has committed to going carbon neutral and will be rolling out an internal carbon fee that will apply to Microsoft’s business operations in over 100 countries. Italian energy company Eni has earmarked approximately $5 billion to achieve its gas flaring and carbon intensity reduction goals; and, the Renault-Nissan Alliance has committed approximately $5 billion to commercialize affordable zero-emission vehicles.” (UN News Centre; June 21, 2012)


Hunter Lovins

These companies subscribe to the triple bottom line that focuses on corporate social responsibility and commitment to the environment, shareholders, and communities. As Lovins explained, there is a business case for the internal carbon tax put into place by Microsoft. By burning less energy either through investments in efficiency or renewables, companies cut costs and minimize risk by making operations more reliable, efficient, and less dependent on other volatile fuel sources. Additionally, since there is less risk for shareholders that the company will be forced to clean up its act down the line, the integrated bottom line components enhance aspects of shareholder value.

Also discussed at Rio+20 is the need to change the metrics used to measure progress, noting how progress is currently measured by GDP which does not take into account environmental degradation. The country of Bhutan  is pushing for a new metric to measure prosperity that takes into account long term quality of life and values protecting the planet called the Gross National Happiness Index. This proposal promotes collaboration and co-learning to solve global challenges, investment in what we value as a society, and an increased focus on how to deliver global prosperity.

Credit: grossnationalhappiness.com

Time to address sustainability challenges is running out as the IEA and OECD have already reported that we’ve locked in 2°C warming. Given the lack of international action, for real progress on the sustainability to be achieved, focus is shifting to citizen action at the local level and small business investments in green jobs, economic development, and efficiency to drive prosperity and change. Even in the current political climate, the executive branch has a variety of tools at its disposal to promote sustainable energy use as outlined in the Presidential Climate Action Project report. Ending all fuel subsidies, including the perverse subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, would signal to the markets the true cost of different sources of energy. The US needs to regain its position as a driving force on the international stage to make serious sustainability commitments. Citizen activism must signal to politicians that the US needs to take an international leadership position.

Join the next National Climate Seminar conversation at noon on September 19th for a discussion regarding climate and the election with energy advisor to US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Darren Springer. Visit the National Climate Seminar website for call information and to see the schedule for the rest of the semester including conversations with KC Golden, May Boeve, and Eleanor Sterling.

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