Sustainable development always seems to come in shades of grey; excuses, obfuscation, conflicting demands, entrenched interests, and inertia can overshadow clarity on what needs to be done ‘on Monday morning’. But for some reason, like Rio de Janeiro’s iconic black slate and white marble sidewalks, sustainable development seemed to be a lot more black and white at last week’s big UN Conference on Sustainable Development .
Maybe it was the more than 20 hours that I spent stuck in traffic that helped bring clarity; or being one of the 50,000 visitors, each spending an average of $10,000 to travel, and emitting about 3.5 tonnes of CO2e (coincidentally what the global average annual per capita emissions needs to stay below, if we want to remain within a warming of 2° C). Flight delays getting there and back were more than 50 hours; leave alone the 24 hours in-the-plane. Was the Rio journey worth it?
These UN negotiation events seem to have two parallel universes: the negotiators and the ‘hangers-on’. The negotiators are tasked with an incredibly difficult job – reach an agreement when most of your constituents at home do not yet support one. The hangers-on have a less challenging but no less important job – use the event to raise awareness (much of it self-serving) and try to lock in a few milestones and ‘micro-agreements’. If done well, these agreements and product/study launches can make a real difference.
The atmosphere for the non-negotiators is a bit like a fall fair or rock concert – a great place to catch up with people you don’t see that often, and a great milestone that in 20 years’ time you can use to reminisce.
Maybe one of the most useful aspects of an event like this is that it brings together so many interested and committed people. Sure, emails, telephone and video conference, and even spiffy ‘tele-presence’ go a long way to keep in touch, but nothing compares to actual face-to-face meetings. And all those conversations in taxis, buses, airplanes and airport lounges probably planted more seeds than a league of proclamations or forest rodents. Some are already bearing fruit.
So where were the glimmers of clarity and despair last week? Good news: everyone now understands just how important cities are to sustainable development, especially – and most importantly – cities themselves. The importance of the C40 announcement of a clear 1 giga tonne reduction target in member cities was their willingness to have achievements measured against a clear and third-party verifiable inventory. This was backed up with Rio’s launch of its Low Carbon Growth Strategy (complete with ISO certification). Countries and companies, and now cities too, support the idea of using natural capital accounting to start measuring what we really value in addition to economic growth. Why and how to make this growth green was discussed. An important partnership for oceans was launched. And there’s a growing awareness on the critical need to increase resilience, again, especially in cities.
And where’s the despair? There’s not nearly enough genuine progress on the three big goals related to biodiversity loss, land degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. Although certainly not a substitute for international agreements, other actors are stepping in to fill the void. These include agencies, businesses, and cities. Events like the off-site business day, and the City of Rio and C40’s special session at Forte de Copacabana  in the heart of the city, had a very different atmosphere: hopeful, action oriented, and ironically, strongly supported by customers and citizens. This additional help might yet convince countries to reach agreement on the really difficult issues more quickly.
On Friday, the last day of the Conference, just as things were winding down, the rain stopped, three days of grey skies cleared and Rio was bright again. The northern hemisphere’s summer started during the Conference, and Washington, DC has already broken 100° F. Things are heating up. People know what needs to be done to get to sustainable development. Events like Rio+20 ensure that the task is understood – with such black and white certainty that no person, no city, no country can say, ‘I didn’t know’. The way is clear.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons