For the Next Earth Summit in Rio, We Want Action, Not More Grand Promises

One year from now, presidents, prime ministers, and other world leaders will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the “Earth Summit.”  Officially labeled the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the meeting will focus on stimulating the green economy and strengthening global governance.

NRDC supports those aims, of course, but there is something we won’t support in Rio: more treaties and plans with lofty goals and distant timetables. National governments have already negotiated and agreed to hundreds of commitments and pledges to protect the environment and achieve a more sustainable future but many have yet to deliver real change on the ground.  The degradation of our planet continues.

At the Earth Summit in June 2012, we have an opportunity to create something different. We can encourage leaders to focus on specific actions in the present and near future instead of agreeing on hopes for a far distant time.

NRDC is launching the “Race to Rio” campaign to encourage leaders from all sectors and levels of society—government officials, CEOs, mayors, activists—to come to Rio to talk about what they are doing now to address the huge challenges we face.  So instead of making pledges or agreeing to statements, they should join with others in implementing new or reinvigorated initiatives to tackle problems where it really matters – at the national level and below.  Promises for others to take action won’t do at this Earth Summit.  Everyone must look in the mirror and commit to steps that they’ll take to deal with these challenges.  

And they must do it quickly. With carbon pollution heating up the planet, 30 percent of animal species threatened with extinction, 75 percent of the world’s fish stocks identified as over exploited, and half of urban dwellers in development nations suffering from diseases associate with lack of clean water and sanitation, we need urgent action.

Global gatherings like the one next year in Rio have the power to shine a spotlight on the decline of our natural systems and create the will to protect them. NRDC’s first Board Chairman Stephen Duggan and our Founding Director John Adams were among the few non-governmental organizations that attended the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. That conference drew attention to the severe pollution problems, particularly in industrialized countries. 

Twenty years later, more than 100 presidents and prime ministers traveled to Rio for the first Earth Summit.  Governments agreed to treaties on climate change and the loss of biodiversity.  They also adopted Agenda 21, a detailed blueprint for sustainable development which each national government was to apply to its own society.

Meetings in Johannesburg, Beijing, Cairo, Nairobi, Kyoto and other capitols followed, and each one produced launched critical efforts to combat the grave challenges facing the planet. Yet now it is time to translate those advances into deeper actions.

Gus Speth, an NRDC Trustee and the former head of the UN Development Programme, writes:

For the most part, we have analyzed, debated, discussed, and negotiated these issues endlessly. My generation is a generation, I fear, of great talkers, overly fond of conferences. On action, however, we have fallen far short. As a result…the threatening global trends highlighted a quarter-century ago continue to this day.

Speth’s quote reminds me of something Mayor Michael Bloomberg said to me during the UN climate treaty negotiations in Bali in 2007: “You are letting politicians off easy. They don’t mind signing a commitment for 2050, because none of them will be around in 40 years.”

It is time the global community started focusing more on action than talk, And the next Earth Summit in Rio must jumpstart that transformation.

The Clinton Global Initiative, which NRDC has been active in since its launch, can provide a useful model. At the CGI, government, corporate, and citizen leaders are asked to make commitments to specific joint efforts to address a range of environmental and sustainable development challenges.  In five years, the CGI has generated more than 1,900 commitments which have benefited nearly 300 million people in more than 170 countries. 

We need this type of individual and collective commitment in Rio, but at a much larger scale and with even more put on the table.

Over the next 12 months, NRDC’s Race to Rio campaign will keep the pressure on leaders.  Today we are releasing a set of specific actions that we need countries, companies, and citizens to commit to implement at the next Earth Summit. These include real solutions like ending harmful subsidies, accelerating investments in renewable energy, creating new marine reserves, and assuring the people everywhere a real say in protecting their own health and environment.   

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.