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Michael Davidson’s Blog

Converging on the Earth Summit: All Eyes on Actions and Accountability

Michael Davidson

Posted March 6, 2011

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On a miserable and rainy New York Sunday with gusts of up to 50 mph, what could fill a conference hall on sleepy 1st Avenue across from the United Nations? Civil society representatives have converged a day before the second preparatory committee on the road to Rio+20 starts to discuss next steps toward making sustainable development a reality. The solution -- as I mentioned during the last meeting – is to focus on actions and accountability.

I am here with my colleague Jacob Scherr who, in addition to moderating a discussion today, is hosting a side-event on the crucial link between climate change and sustainable development. He will joined by NRDC’s Jake Schmidt and others to help stimulate creative thoughts on how to use the Earth Summit as a key stepping stone toward implementing a robust and accountable climate change regime.

The challenge is that the Earth Summit 2012 is not – and must not ­­– be just another environmental conference. Just another environmental conference is where incremental improvements to an underperforming system are made. But, as UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner articulated clearly today:

Rio will tie down the world for the next ten to twenty years for sustainable development…How can you rationalize the status quo when the pieces around you are crumbling?

Those pieces – runaway climate change, depleting oceans, and widespread desertification – are clearer than ever. Governments know they need to act; and civil society plays a crucial role in all this.

One of the successful outcomes of the Johannesburg Summit in 2002 was the creation of partnerships and initiatives (search the whole database) that brought together diverse stakeholders in a truly transformative way. What began as 300 voluntary coalitions and now includes over 7000 organizations provides insight into the new idea forming on the lips of many who will be joining the conference tomorrow: coalitions of the willing.

These coalitions – made of government, non-governmental organizations, businesses and other stakeholders – could be organized around thematic clusters, as one participant today noted, and should be even more diverse than the original partnerships in Johannesburg.

Susanne Salz of the ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability says the world’s cities are on board. Over 1,000 cities have volunteered to craft climate plans in eight months to present at the next climate conference in Durban, to complement national government plans who are the full negotiating parties. If similar plans were drafted by business and by civil society, we could total them up and just might be surprised of how far we can get.

Of course, crafting the plan and committing to act must be followed up by robust accountability. Many groups, including NRDC, are converging on the idea of creating a registry of sustainability actions, to record, monitor and evaluate all the pledges. This is robustly debated in the formal climate change negotiations, but so far the sustainable development discussions have not been able to make it happen.

To understand the breadth and perspective such a catalogue could bring to the debate, take a look at the Stakeholder Forum’s recent report Global Sustainability Targets - building accountability for the 21st century. It records all the environmental, human development and governance goals internationally agreed upon since 1992.

With just a little over a year – and less than three weeks of official negotiating days – left before global leaders arrive in Rio next June, there is no time to waste.


I will be tweeting and blogging from the UN negotiations. You can follow me @east_winds.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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