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Earth Summit 2012: What's in a Name?

Jacob Scherr

Posted August 8, 2011

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logoBig_rio+20.jpgThere are a lot of different views about what to call the gathering of world leaders planned for Rio de Janeiro just under 10 months from now.  The event is officially labeled the “United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development” – or UNCSD. 

Since UNCSD is not a very engaging moniker, the UN, Brazil, and others have dubbed the conference “Rio+20” to commemorate the “United Nations Conference on Environment and Development”  - or UNCED - also held there in 1992.    

Earth Summit 1992.jpg

UNCED was called  - and is popularly known as - the “Earth Summit”.  It attracted the participation of more than 100 Presidents and Prime Ministers and was considered a very successful and productive meeting.  (See my  forthcoming blog for more details.)  

 (Credit:UN Photo/Michos Tzavaros)



UN Stockholm environment meeting 1972.jpgSome have suggested that the Rio+20 meeting should be instead called “Stockholm +40”, recognizing that the international community’s efforts to protect our shared planetary home actually began at the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972.  

(Credit: UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata)

Yet both these monikers are backward-looking and suggest that we should be reflecting on what has and has not been accomplished over the last decades.

So NRDC and other groups prefer to dub the Rio meeting next year as “Earth Summit 2012.” There is a whole new generation who have come of age in the last 2-to-4 decades and have no memory of Rio and Stockholm.  It is the young who have the most at risk if we - their parents – fail to rise to the challenge of meeting the needs of now almost 7 billion people while protecting the environment. 

There has been a lot of worry recently about financial deficits, but we need to focus as well on our overspending and overtaxing of natural assets.  According to Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, “The human pressure on the Earth System has reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded. To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical ‘hard-wired´ thresholds in the Earth´s environment, and respect the nature of the planet's climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes.”

As NRDC’s President wrote recently, “Failure is not an option when it comes to protecting the natural systems that sustain us all. We have no choice but to try to make the Earth Summit a truly historic and transformative event that starts building the green future today.” Over the next months, let’s work hard to ensure that no matter what we label the gathering in Rio next June that we expect the Presidents, Prime Ministers, and world’s leaders to come ready to take action to move us towards a safer, more secure and prosperous world.  

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Cyril RitchieAug 9 2011 06:00 AM

The Environment Liaison Centre International (ELCI) fully endorses this proposal, and will henceforth refer to "Rio+20" exclusively as Earth Summit 2012. Thanks Jakob.
Cyril Ritchie, Chair ELCI

Lawrence MacDonaldAug 10 2011 01:20 PM

Jacob: Great piece. In a letter I just sent inviting development experts to a roundtable on the summit here at the Center for Global Development, I used the two terms pretty much interchangeably, even as I wondered a bit how much resonance "Rio+20" would have for the young. I agree that while we must learn from and honor past efforts, we also must make these efforts relevant to the young, who will inherit the mess we are leaving behind. Earth Summit 2012 it is!

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