At the Summit of the Americas leaders must start looking toward the Earth Summit

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Thirty-two of the Western Hemisphere's leaders are gathered in the seaside city of Cartagena, Colombia for the Sixth Summit of the Americas during which they’ll participate in two days of intense discussions on fostering regional collaboration. Top on the agenda will be issues of poverty, security, natural disasters, access to technology, and energy. The high-level meeting follows a week’s worth of stakeholder forums for youth, workers, indigenous and social organizations;  as well as a “CEO Summit” where hundreds of businesses and corporations participated.   As is customary at these summits, one of the outcomes will be a negotiated final declaration.  But leaders should also take the opportunity over the next two days to seriously get down to the business of identifying concrete and actionable opportunities for regional sustainability partnerships that they can launch during this June’s  Rio+20 Earth Summit.  At the Earth Summit we'll expect more than a negotiated text. Leaders must show up ready to make concrete sustainability commitments for which they can be held accountable.

One area where enhanced hemispheric collaboration is needed is climate change and energy. In this regard, the setting of the Summit is quite fitting. Cartagena, a charming historic city on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, is on the front lines of climate change:  unless urgent measures are taken, rising sea levels could submerge parts of the city within 20 years.

This is just one reason why the leaders assembling in the city this weekend need to get serious about ramping up energy efficiency and renewable energy. According to UNEP’s en.lighten initiative, the Latin America and Caribbean region has the potential to reduce 4% of its overall electricity consumption by simply switching to more efficient lightbulbs – saving consumers billions of dollars in the process.  Last year during a regional meeting in Santo Domingo, officials from 26 countries expressed support for phasing out inefficient light bulbs. These countries must now turn good intentions into reality and start making the policy changes needed to boost energy efficiency such as harmonizing minimum efficiency and quality standards and developing efficiency incentive mechanisms.   For now it’s encouraging to see that as part of the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas – one of the initiatives launched during the last Summit of the Americas – Mexico will work with other countries in the region to help governments advance energy efficiency through policy, regulation and technology.  This is precisely the type of partnership that we need to see more of at Rio+20.

Coming out of the Summit of the Americas and going into Rio+20 we also need to see similar efforts to catalyze the region’s renewable energy sector by sharing technology, collaborating on training, increasing investment and implementing appropriate policies. It will also be important for governments to commit to phasing down fossil fuel subsidies to even the playing field for cleaner renewable alternatives. Worldwide in 2010, $409 billion in subsidies were provided for fossil-fuel consumption and $100 billion are provided yearly for their production.  It’s critical for the countries in the Americas to start moving away from these perverse and environmentally harmful policies.  And of course the region’s leaders need to make concerted efforts to increase green jobs training and education for youth.  As the Americas makes the necessary transitions to a cleaner and more sustainable energy future we need to make sure our youth are ready to fill jobs in these sectors.

In Cartagena leaders must start laying the groundwork for a more sustainable energy future for region.  An announcement by leaders that they will commit to achieving universal energy access in ten years was a positive start to the presidential summit. This and other common objectives may be reflected in the the summit's final political document. Yet the negotiated outcome text that emeges from the Summit of the Americas may end up providing little substance as to how, exactly, the region will achieve greater prosperity and environmental and social sustainability for its people.   That's why at the Rio+20 Earth Summit this coming June, we’ll expect much more than merely another negotiated text. We’ll want clear, concrete commitments that can be registered and tracked in a global on-line registry.  After all we won’t be talking about just the Americas, we’ll be talking about the entire Earth and our time to get on a more sustainable track is running out fast.

Photo credit: Pascal Pizol under Creative Commons License