The UN's Rio+20 Conference Matters

© Sierra Club / The "Heads in the Sand" event at COP17, South Africa, 2011.

As the world's eyes turn to the United Nations' Rio+20 Conference, there seems to be an endless stream of negative press suggesting we should all just give up on global cooperation and watch the planet burn.

While new global treaties are increasingly difficult, the days of international cooperation are far from over. Indeed, it is more important than ever given the interrelated environmental crises we face.

That's why we asked President Obama to come and lend his weight to a number of important outcomes - from phasing out fossil fuel subsidies to mobilizing $500 million to support clean energy access, to increasing support for reproductive health and contraceptive access (not to mention a host of others). The only way to move forward on these important issues is international cooperation, and that's why Rio Matters.

To start, governments around the world spend over $775 billion in subsidies for fossil fuels - a costly, dirty, outdated, and unsustainable habit. While more than 53 countries now have publicly committed to phase-out subsidies for fossil fuels, little concrete progress has been made. As our friends at NRDC have pointed out, Rio+20 is clearly the time for getting out of the business of subsidizing activities that are destroying the planet.

So where should our scarce public money be going? Let's start with achieving universal energy access by delivering clean energy to the world's poor. If we want to deliver on energy access goals in Rio, though, we cannot wait for the grid, and we cannot rely on fossil fuels. That's the conclusion the International Energy Agency came to in a recent report stating an over reliance on coal and grid extension will leave one billion of the world's poor without energy access by 2030 (PDF). That leaves us with one billion reasons to push public institutions like the World Bank to invest in the alternative - distributed clean energy access. The Sierra Club, along with Carbon War Room, Eight19, Greenlight Planet, and Greenpeace India are joining forces to ensure world leaders get the message.

While we need to be sure everyone can access clean energy, we also need to slow population growth and ensure family planning access if we expect communities to develop sustainably. That’s why the Sierra Club's Global Population and Environment Program will be advocating for population and reproductive health access to support sustainable development. They'll be teaming up with Population Action International, Advocates for Youth, SustainUS, the Youth Coalition, and the government of Sri Lanka for an event featuring the voices of young people from around the world who have experienced the deep connections between sexual and reproductive health and rights and the environment.

Why is this important? Remember there are 215 million women in the world with an unmet need for family planning - those who want to plan their births but don't have the knowledge, access, resources, or power to be able to do so. It is essential to individual, community, and environmental health that we grant this access to women and families. When women have the ability to plan their family size, they are better able to manage resources, participate in income-generating activities and community decision making, and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Given the far-reaching benefits of this access for health and the planet, recognition is essential at Rio+20 and organizations like the Royal Society, the Aspen Institute, the Center for Environment and Population, the UN Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars will be in Rio de Janeiro advocating for attention to these issues and pushing for official recognition of population and reproductive health and rights in the zero draft.

Ultimately, though, if we hope to achieve these goals and build a better more sustainable tomorrow, it's vital we engage the youth. That's why our Sierra Student Coalition will be in Rio to strengthen the international youth movement to work with the Mayor Group of Children and Youth (MCGY). While most of our leaders can't agree to move forward on strong climate policy, the youth from around the world are giving them an example by working as a united front. Working through the MGCY the SSC'ers plan to meet with officials and highlight successful campus and community campaigns that are moving the world towards a sustainable future (like our highly successful Campuses Beyond Coal campaign). The SSC will be taking advantage of social media blogging, tweeting (@Intl_SSC) and posting on Facebook, so be sure to follow them to get all the most recent updates on Rio+20.

To recap, Rio has the potential to engage the world's youth to help push for meaningful progress on phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, delivering universal clean energy access, and promoting women's rights and slowing global population. These are all very important issues - so pay attention.

-- Co-written by Justin Guay of the Sierra Club International Program. To follow along with Sierra Club representatives in Rio for the conference, check out the Compass blog.

Tags: Clean Energy | India | Population Growth | Rio+20 | Sustainable Development