Rio 2012 to Address Progress, Shortfalls In Achieving Global Sustainable Development

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NEW YORK--The U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development planned for June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro “will be one of the most important events in the coming decade,” the U.N. official in charge of the meeting said March 4.

In a briefing for reporters at U.N. headquarters, Undersecretary-General Sha Zukang said Rio 2012, also known as Rio+20, will draw heads of state and government to assess progress and implementation gaps since the 1992 Earth Summit and identify new challenges. Sha serves as the conference's secretary-general.

Two subthemes will be the role of the green economy and poverty eradication, and reforms in the U.N. institutional framework.

The conference will not address “merely the green economy per se,” but “the green economy as a means to achieve sustainable development” by creating jobs, improving efficiency in resource use, and restoring ecosystems, Sha said.

“Experts may have different ideas, but all agree we need pathways to a new era of sustainable, low-carbon, inclusive growth,” he added. That task has become more urgent against the backdrop of world recession, energy and food shortages, and mounting social tensions, he said.

Countries' Have Concerns.

Sha said the Rio conference must address some countries' concern that the social and economic pillars of sustainable development may lose ground to the third pillar, environmental protection, in the growth of the green economy.

Some countries are concerned that new environmental standards will affect market access for their products, and others believe they lack the resources to launch a green economy, Sha said.

“Frankly, the conference can succeed only when those concerns are addressed,” he said.

Regarding institutional reforms, he said the conference should produce a blueprint for a “coherent pursuit” of sustainable development to bring together fragmented U.N. systems, including a strengthened U.N. Environment Program and Commission on Sustainable Development.

To aid delegates at a March 7-8 preparatory committee session, Sha said, the United Nations has been compiling country views on best practices, laying out objectives and themes, and analyzing the role of the green economy in sustainable development.

A High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, named by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in August, is also guiding preparations for the summit (33 INER 816, 8/18/10).

Time Short, Official Says.

Ambassador Charles Ntwaagae of Botswana, a vice-chairman of the 10-member Commission on Sustainable Development bureau set up to organize the conference, said that time is short to craft an “ambitious and action-oriented” political document for the conference's approval.

The exact dates of Rio 2012 will be announced “in due course,” but the Brazilian government has indicated that the “early part of June” would be best, Ntwaagae said.

Determining the shape and form of the political document, he said, will be “the real work” over the next 15 months. Officials hope to have a draft ready by the end of 2011, he reported.

Defining a “green economy” will be a central issue, Ntwaagae said. The goal is to “move us toward a low-carbon future with more employment opportunities, better health, and less environmental degradation,” he suggested.

“We all know where we're headed, but we need to define clearly the means to get there,” he said.

Despite the short time available, “we cannot take shortcuts” from the guiding principles of openness, inclusion, and transparency in the process, Ntwaagae said.

“Rio+20 concerns and belongs to all countries, and to everyone,” he added.

Consolidation, Not New Pacts.

Asked if the conference would produce agreements on par with accords on climate change and biodiversity launched at the 1992 summit, Ntwaagae said that the intention would be instead to “consolidate on commitments already made.”

Governments have “covered a lot of ground” but still demonstrate gaps in implementing those agreements, he added. The 1992 Earth Summit produced the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.

Improving the quality of life while conserving natural resources and protecting the planet requires a shift to an economy that rests on sound ecological and social principles, Ban said in one of the reports issued in advance of the preparatory committee session, the second of three.

The first was held in May 2010 in New York, and the third is planned for May 2012 in Brazil.

By John Herzfeld