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Countries Call for Action on Sustainable Development at Earth Summit in 2012

Michael Davidson

Posted January 12, 2011

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Over the last two days, countries and civil society groups met in New York to discuss the future of international efforts to promote sustainable development. The meeting at the UN was the first preparatory meeting since last May for the 2012 Earth Summit (also called Rio+20) which will be held next May in Rio de Janeiro. It was refreshing to see that with less than a year and half to go, countries have already raised the profile of important topics such as the green economy, avoiding rhetoric and focusing on their concrete application. My colleague Heather Allen tracks the green economy debate here.

We heard in all the sessions that there is a need for action. The environment is deteriorating due to over-exploitation of natural resources and unsustainable patterns of consumption. This concept is fundamentally unchanged since the first Earth Summit in 1992, which attracted heads of state from over a hundred countries to create conventions on climate change and biological diversity, and led to the sustainable development blueprint Agenda 21.

What has changed since 1992? We have measured increased disruptions to our global ecosystem from human activities. The year 2010 tied for the hottest globally in the surface temperature record dating back to 1880. In the U.S., one in four recording stations saw the hottest summer on record. Fisheries are collapsing, oceans are acidifying, and the list goes on.

At the same time, the consensus on the relationship between environmental impacts and our unsustainable methods has never been more certain. Climate science, in particular, has progressed from a statement of principles and warnings to a concrete list of expected impacts (see the 4th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

Over that same period, we have also witnessed countries acting. And not just developed countries. According to World Bank’s 2010 World Development Report (WDR), 23 percent of new investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency in 2007 were in developing countries, up from 13 percent in 2004 (see Chapter 7 on technology diffusion). Climate-smart policies for innovation are showing a new economic development pathway forward for countries around the world (see this excellent summary by my colleague Jake Schmidt).

China, for example, is drafting its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), which will call for continued action on climate change and environmental protection and energy efficiency. More than half of the seven new economy-wide strategic industries over the next five years will promote real action on sustainable development (for example, on energy-saving and environmental protection technology, new energy, new materials and new-energy cars). Investment targets in low-carbon energy over the next ten years are $738 billion.[1]

In addition to the top three developing countries highlighted in the WDR (Brazil, China and India), Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP, listed a host of other countries of varying sizes – South Korea, South Africa, Kenya – that have made ambitious steps toward sustainable development. Disseminating and supporting these national-level lessons are exactly what the Earth Summit 2012 is about.

One final theme over the two-day meeting was a recognized need for increased and better-targeted green finance for developing countries. The U.S. is the world leader in providing humanitarian assistance to countries in crisis, according to U.S. Agency for International Development. Before climate crises occur, however, there is a need for the U.S. and all major donors to ramp up investments that help vulnerable countries adapt to the potentially destabilizing impacts.

The Earth Summit in 2012 will provide an opportunity for the world to reflect on how well it has achieved the goals it laid out in 1992. There, governments will be on the line to demonstrate political commitment to continuing and accelerating real action on sustainable development. But, civil society will not wait for governments to act: let’s start building sustainable communities now that will set the bar for our leaders to bring real solutions in hand to Brazil next year.


[1] This figure also includes nuclear and unconventional gas.

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Dr. J. SingmasterJan 13 2011 01:31 AM

The most basic point for attaining sustainability is recognizing that our wastes are often a resource. The most glaring unrecognized waste to make into a resource is our massive ever-growing organic waste messes including sewage that can become a major resource with many benefits for the biosphere by using pyrolysis on them. I have detailed this in many comments on this and other blogs. Why do we let those wastes accumulate to be leaching germs, toxics and drugs and to be undergoing natural biodegradation to be reemitting GHGs such as CO2 and methane needlessly.

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