What to Expect from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20

There’s a mixture of excitement and lack of actual expectations around the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, which will officially be held from June 20 to 22 in Rio de Janeiro, but which will be surrounded by a series of events around the city that kicked off the first days of this month with the World Environmental Day celebrations.

Such events and active participation from civil society are part of the “excitement” part: unlike the first Earth Summit in 1992, Rio+20 has actively encouraged the participation of city governments, NGOs, the private sector and everyone who wanted in on the discussion. A step bound to have the many people that are flooding Rio talking about the event, regardless if there are any results or not.

Which brings us to the “lack of expectations” part: negotiations are seriously slow and organizers have not been shy in saying they won’t be “idealistic.” There are reasons to agree with that posture and reasons to fight it. I happen to have little faith in the global negotiations process and more hope for cities and governments’ actions, and so I think the event will be successful in connecting and amplifying individual efforts more than coordinate global ones (a question to be asked is how we could measure those individual efforts to understand what we are achieving).

This writer will be heading north-east to Rio de Janeiro to cover the event for TreeHugger, so in advance to that here are some thoughts on what we’re expecting:

1. Negotiations not to be groundbreaking

Brazil’s head of environment at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and chief negotiator on climate change, Andre Correa do Lago, was very clear in his words at a press conference last February: “It is not an idealistic conference, we are not going to say we are saving the planet through goals and measures that we know are not going to be taken seriously.”

What’s being discussed here is a definition of what sustainable development means, a framework in which to draw long term policies. Even if that’s easy to understand on a general level, negotiators are going through every single word: “extreme” poverty is not the same than poverty, “safe and clean” water is not the same than just safe water. So it doesn’t seem like great announcements are going to come from the event, but more of a common view of the path forward.

2. Action to concentrate outside the offices

This goes in line with the previous remarks, and was suggested by Rodrigo Rosa, Rio+20 coordinator at Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor’s Office, in an interview with TreeHugger: “Rio+20’s strength will not be inside the offices, but in the movement. This year we’ll have a great amount of parallel events that didn’t happen in 1992. Politicians are reactive, they take decisions after there’s will in civil society. I think Rio+20 will contribute to that.”

Hardcore environmentalists will say momentum has already been built, and that might be true. I can say, however, that this event is generating more ‘green’ discussion in South America than the climate negotiations (COP) have in the past.

3. Cities to be protagonists

It’s no news that mayors around the world are stepping ahead of national governments in terms of environmental action, and this fact is a hopeful one: applying new policies in cities is politically easier than changing programs on a national level, and considering more than half the world population lives in cities, the impact of these actions is not small.

Within the conference Humanidade 2012, the Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) will have a Mayors’ Summit, in which the group's chairman New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes will host mayors and officials from 26 urban centers.

“Discussions about sustainability are necessarily discussions about sustainability in cities,” said Rosa. “The mayor of London said, ‘There’s no copyright in public policy,’ and thank God for that. Because if we start copying what other cities are doing right, the change is going to be faster.”

4. Alternative growth measurement talk

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: coming up with alternative ways to measure the health of our economies besides GDP is essential to ensure we don’t commodify nature and therefore create a sustainable future.

In the before mentioned press conference, negotiator Correa do Lago agreed that this is “key” at Rio+20: “The idea of new indicators is very much in the agenda of the conference. Obviously some countries are worried about that, because they believe that if we create new indicators, maybe they will be used against them. But I think we can do a good job in that area, this is a key issue on the conference."

5. High profile speakers, tons of ideas

The diversity and quality of events everywhere will flood the city with ideas and case studies. The Rio Plus Social event alone will have among its speakers media magnate Ted Turner, former presidents of Brazil and Chile Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Michelle Bachelet, Virgin founder Richard Branson, and Mashable’s Pete Cashmore, among many others. The Peoples Summit’s program is so vast, it seems there are going to be more events than people.

6. Involvement from Civil society

Environmental negotiations have long been a place for diplomats and a few very specialized press correspondents, but the change that began with the COP15 in Copenhagen will deepen in Rio+20. The main purpose of campaigns such as Rio Plus Social and Rio Plus You has been to make people understand how the event connects to their lives and why they should care about it.

So, What do you think? Are you paying attention to Rio+20? What are your expectations?

This writer will be arriving to Rio on June 16. If you have any leads or want to point us in the direction of an interesting event, please e-mail paula@treehugger.com or tweet me at @paualvarado.

Follow all Rio+20 coverage here.

What to Expect from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20
In advance to TreeHugger's on the ground coverage of the Earth Summit, some thoughts on what we’re thinking the event will and will not be.

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