Rio+20 is a Once in a Generation Opportunity

The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development begins in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil As the world faces enormous challenges, Rio+20 is an opportunity to change course and move toward a more sustainable future. The Rio+20 summit is a two-day United Nations Conference that seeks to build consensus on a more sustainable course for our world. Rio+20 will convene in Brazil on June 20, 2012, marking the 20th anniversary of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in Rio de Janeiro, and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.

We are in dire need of a better environmental, economic and social future for all. With most of the world’s ecosystems in decline, the need for an international agreement on a sustainable future is more urgent than ever. Today, over one billion people lack access to food, electricity or safe drinking water. Climate change and global population growth will only exacerbate these challenges.

As reviewed in a Business Green article, UK environment secretary Caroline Spelman is highly optimistic that an ambitious agreement can be reached, she feels that low expectations improve the prospects of a favorable outcome. She has indicated that there is significant support for a deal amongst environment ministers. She cites evidence of broad support for an ambitious agreement including natural capital accounting, and sustainable development goals that include action on food water and energy management.

Spelman’s optimism is in part driven by her conviction that green growth is not an oxymoron. She makes the point emphatically when she says:

“The world needs this [green growth]; it needs it now; the time is right and my impression of other environment ministers is that there is a determination to nail the myth that you can’t be green and growing. Actually, the opposite is true – it is in your interests to be both green and growing.”

Goals, themes and priorities

The Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) is being organized in pursuance of the General Assembly Resolution 64/236, which concerns the implementation of Agenda 21, the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21 and the outcomes of the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which humans have an impact on the environment.

The goal of the Rio+20 Conference is a political document that will set the strategy for the realization of a more sustainable world. This document is known as “Rio Outcome Document”, ideally, it will put forth plans for a green economy and offer a new governance structure for sustainable development.

The primary themes of the Conference are building a green economy, sustainable development and poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development.

There are seven key areas which must be addressed at the Conference, these include decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, water, oceans, disaster preparedness, food security and sustainable agriculture.


Business was the focus of the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum, which was subtitled, “Innovation and Collaboration for the Future We Want.” It was hosted by the UN Global Compact, in cooperation with the Rio+20 Secretariat, the UN System and the Global Compact Local Network Brazil. The Forum was held on June 15-18, 2012, it had more than 2,000 participants and featured over 100 sessions focused on six themes that are central to the Rio+20 agenda: Energy & Climate, Water & Ecosystems, Agriculture & Food, Social Development, Urbanization & Cities, and Economics & Finance.

Launched in 2000, the UN Global Compact is both a policy platform and a practical framework for companies that are committed to sustainability and responsible business practices. With 7,000 corporate signatories in 135 countries, it is the world’s largest voluntary corporate sustainability initiative.

If we are to make meaningful progress, the business community must be part of the sustainable development dialogue. Far from being resistant, many in the business community are spearheading efforts to address sustainability. Companies like Aviva, Unilever and Puma are showing real sustainability leadership.

“One of the exciting things going into this summit is that businesses, politicians and NGOs are aligned…in the realisation that we urgently need to put the world’s economy on to a sustainable footing,” Spelman said.


There are several issues which jeopardize progress at Rio+20. Two of the most salient issues concern finance and recalcitrant unsustainable sectors like fossil fuels.

On June 16, the summit’s Brazilian hosts released a new 50-page draft negotiating text that has been harshly criticized for its lack of ambition. The head of the WWF delegation at the summit, Lasse Gustavsson said of the draft, “We don’t need meaningless pages right now. What we need is a manual to save the world.”

At one point, officials of developing nations temporarily walked out of talks due to their dissatisfaction with progress on funding and technology transfer agreements. There is a need for a $30bn to $100bn fund to help developing nations to be more sustainable, however, the draft did not call for the establishment of such a fund.

Many have criticized the fact that the draft does not contain earlier proposals for rules that would require businesses to report on their environmental performance. In addition the text does not make any commitments to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.

End fossil fuel subsidies

According to Oil Change International fossil fuel subsidies cost taxpayers between 775 million and $1 trillion dollars a year. Of all the issues worthy of being addressed at Rio+20 summit, none has more merit, nor more popular support than the idea of ending fossil fuel subsidies. People want world leaders to deliver an ambitious treaty that accelerates the growth of the global green economy and putting an end to fossil fuel subsidies is a key component of that.

A coalition of green NGOs delivered a petition calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. The petition contained over one million signatures and was sent to leaders around the world, including British Prime Minister David Cameron. On Monday June 18th there was also a global 24-hour “Twitterstorm” where thousands called on governments to end fossil fuel subsidies.

Even though the U.S. has endorsed ending fossil fuel subsidies, Republicans in congress refuse to pass the necessary legislation. Despite Republican lies to the contrary, the only people who actually benefit from government subsidies are the fossil fuel companies themselves.

A recent NRDC report states fossil fuel subsidies hurt economic growth while putting an end to fossil fuel subsidies will not hurt the poor. The report also reviews the benefits of ending fossil fuel subsidies. It indicates that in addition to saving almost a trillion taxpayer dollars per year, ending fossil fuel subsidies will also:

  • Cut carbon dioxide emissions 6 percent by 2020.
  • Reduce overall energy demand 5 percent by 2020.

One simple act can accomplish so much for the planet and its inhabitants. According to the IEA, ending fossil fuel subsidies will get us half way to stopping climate change.

Environmental degradation continues at an alarming pace and the Rio+20 summit offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to steer the planet away from the rapidly approaching breakers.


Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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