A View from Rio+20

Copacobana Beach.  The girl from Ipanema, rampant crime, slum neighborhoods on the hillsides above ocean front tourist centers, fantastic natural beauty, and beef so cheap that burgers cost less than an order of fries – Rio de Janeiro is a study in contrasts and was metaphorically suited to host Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

From June 13 – 23, the 20th anniversary of the world’s first Earth Summit came back to Rio where it first began. The world of sustainability and Brazil are both different twenty years later. Brazil has made a stunning transformation from a state emerging from the shadow of a military dictatorship to a vibrant democracy and economic powerhouse. The country is now the world’s seventh largest economy, and Rio has managed to attract not only Rio+20 and its 50,000 attendees, but also the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

Twenty years later, the planet’s sustainability leaders are still struggling to find ways to keep pace with the dual resource demands of population growth and a global desire for better quality of life. The result is often equated with more people being able to have more “stuff,” creating more pressure on finite resources. This is especially true since, in 1992, carbon emissions weren’t driving thinking about global sustainability.

From the vantage point of Rio+20, the road to sustainability appears to be as difficult as the roads that took traffic 18 miles from Copacabana, a center for visitor lodging, to the Rio Centro Convention Center. On the busiest days, the comfortable buses shuttling attendees between the two regions of the City took more than two hours each way, traversing a road along the coast that in spots had only a single lane in each direction.

The view was beautiful along the hilly portion of road overlooking the Atlantic, with a great view of Comprida Island and the other smaller islands adjacent to it. The beaches of Copacobana and Ipanema are world class, with coarse white sand and clear water. However, those images belie the contrast of Rio’s main harbor around the point from Copacobana.

As the Toronto Star reported on June 20, 2012, Guanabara Bay “absorbs about 1.2 billion litres of raw waste water a day.” This is roughly enough to fill 480 Olympic swimming pools. Since the last Earth Summit in 1992, seven waste treatment stations have been built, according to the Star, but only three of them work, and “at a fraction of capacity.” “Even on Governor’s Island, which houses both the international airport and the federal university of Rio, waste water pours unfiltered into the environment. The treatment plant there doesn’t work either,” the Star said.

The contrasts of stunning beaches opposed to stunningly poor water quality reflect the deeper differences within this City. From my beachfront hotel in Copacabana, I could leave the premises via a special door marked “To the Beach” and access all the resources of a developed nation. However, from my hotel room, I could see a favela overlooking the wealth of the tourist district from the center of a hillside community. Favelas are struggling slums or shanty towns where the police have little control, waiting for the prosperity of the city below to make its way up the hillside, much like the developing nations are waiting for the prosperity of the developed world to meet them. Rio and Brazil are much like the planet as a whole, working to gain ground but still not there when sustainability is the measure.

Why does this contrast have bearing on the Rio+20 conference? A discussion between Sir Richard Branson, actor Ed Norton, and Dr. Jane Goodall illustrates the reasons. They were on a panel moderated and hosted by Jeff Horowitz, executive director of Avoided Deforestation Partners, and were asked what gave them reason for hope.

  • Richard Branson talked about hope for the oceans …
  • Ed Norton tried to put some humor in it … he said “Every morning I wake up dreaming I am Richard Branson. Then I realize I am not and get on with my day.”
  • Jane Goodall said “we must have disconnected our heads from our hearts. What is good for me must be good for our children. I have hope for a woman in Africa with five children whose husband has died and wakes up smiling. And she isn’t Richard Branson, and probably isn’t dreaming about him because she doesn’t know who he is.”

Embedded in those flashes of humor were some important truths. Much of the population in developed world strives to be like Richard Branson or some equivalent. Yet much of the developing world only strives to have a supply of food, clean water, good health care, and an opportunity to educate their children.

The challenge of the conference, in part, was to find commonality on what is sustainability between these two contrasting extremes. The outcome of the conference, the main event, was to be a consensus outlining “The Future We Want,” a document designed to shape new policies that would “promote global prosperity, reduce poverty and advance social equity and environmental protection.” But what would that mean? Would it mean our descendants around the globe will ultimately be able achieve and sustain the standards of the developed nations? Or would it mean most of them will find sustainability is more like today’s developing world? Somewhere along the gradient between the two lies the answer to what sustainability really means for both.

During the conference, hundreds of side events were held at Rio Centro Convention Center, at Athletes Park across the street, at hotels, and at other venues. The language drafted for the main document was considered less than optimal by many, but optimism took hold because it was apparent that the side events had really become the main event. These meetings showcased the work of people around the world acting to reach sustainability without a guiding international document.

According to Justin Mundy, the director of the Prince of Wales Charities, it is time to take action now and fit those actions to an international framework when it becomes available. Like Mr. Mundy, many participants had hopes that a more substantive global framework ultimately will be agreed upon. When it does, the actions already underway will likely fit nicely into that global structure.

The best opportunity to understand this in a celebratory way was the United Nations Development Program’s Equator Awards held on Wednesday night, June 20. Individuals and local groups from around the planet were honored for their actions seeking sustainability in their communities. Honorees found solutions for clean water, food security, pollution reduction and more by rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. In the audience cheering them on were many of the authors of the official conference document. The suits were celebrating the workers.

With these awards comes a measure of hope that the dreams of the developed world and developing world can come together and find a sustainable future. If they don’t, will sustainability and the planet be like the man watching the girl from Ipanema “who and when she passes he smiles, but she doesn’t see, no she doesn’t see, she just doesn’t see …?” With time, the continuing dialogue between nations, actions on the ground, and the hard work of organizations like E2 there will hopefully be an answer that most will see as positive.

Carl Nettleton attended Rio+20 to speak at Ocean Day on behalf of OpenOceans Global.  This article is reprinted from E2’s June 2012 Newsletter.


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