Environmentalists Plan for 2012 Earth Summit

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Rio Earth SummitAs governments around the world debate their role in combating climate change, plans are forming behind the scenes for a meeting of global leaders to address environmental issues that have lost international attention in recent years.

The plans envision a gathering reminiscent of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro-an event that captures the world's attention and spurs a new wave of ideas and enthusiasm for environmental governance. Coincidentally or not, the government of Brazil has agreed to host the meeting in 2012 with the branding, "Rio +20."

For many environmentalists, the first Earth Summit was the beginning of a global movement. Riding a wave of public concern about environmental degradation, the summit brought together new ideas about sustainable development and forged several major international agreements.

Rio +20 planners and supporters envision a similar role for the new event. With climate change consuming the bulk of international attention in recent years, other environmental concerns-such as the pollution of freshwater and marine ecosystems, the accumulation of toxics, and rapid loss of biodiversity-need to be given greater international priority, organizers said.

Felix Dodds, executive director of the Stakeholder Forum-an international organization that promotes sustainable development-has suggested that certain international environmental institutions and agreements might be revisited or renegotiated at the Earth Summit. These may include the United Nations Environment Programme and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Dodds, who has been instrumental in forming the vision for Earth Summit 2012, said that the catch-all theme for this summit will be "The Green Economy," a term now used in contexts ranging from energy and labor policies to investment decisions. During planning discussions with the Brazilian government and environmental organizations, Dodds said there has been a common call "to consolidate and develop ideas around the Green Economy.... [We] must bring in economic and development concerns."

Earth Summit supporters delivered a letter [PDF] to U.S. President Barack Obama last month that requested his support in recapturing public attention for a broad range of environmental concerns. "There is a whole new generation of leaders and a swell of youth behind them whose lives and understanding of the world will be shaped by the events in the next several years," stated the letter, signed by 13 directors of prominent environmental organizations.

Jacob Scherr, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's international program, spearheaded the letter. "2012 is a chance to reignite the public," he said.

If Obama were to attend the event, he would be the first U.S. president to participate in an Earth Summit since George H. W. Bush travelled to Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Bush's participation contributed to the summit's visibility and success, Scherr said. 

The last Earth Summit was held in 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa, but it suffered from a lack of full support from the countries that attended. Negotiators shied away from forging intergovernmental agreements in favor of establishing "public-private partnerships" aimed at small-scale development goals. Additionally, decisions made at Word Trade Organization meetings prior to the Earth Summit prevented many countries from making funding commitments. 

Andrew Deutz, The Nature Conservancy's director of international government relations, helped organize the Johannesburg Summit and foresees the situation in 2012 as very different. The environmental outlook today is even bleaker than it was in 2002, he said.

"Let's ask ourselves what the world will look like in 2050: nine billion people, an economy that's three times larger, and greater land and water scarcity," Deutz said. "How do you manage that? It brings us back to the sustainable development agenda, only it looks even scarier than in 2002." 

The outcome of climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December is expected to generate significant transfers of wealth and technology from the industrialized world to developing countries. If so, Deutz said, the 2012 summit could be well-positioned to create linkages between the sustainable development and climate change agendas.

"The post-Copenhagen world [could] bring an entirely new financial landscape with tens of billions of dollars directed toward mitigation, adaptation, and technology transfer in developing countries," he said.

Even if Obama's degree of support is uncertain, Rio +20 planners are working on ways to garner as much grassroots attention as possible. Plans are under way to bring a strong Internet component to the Earth Summit that could engage a vast global audience. Dodds and Scherr have both expressed hopes that people will be incited to go online and make personal and community pledges for sustainability, from individual behavior change to enacting local environmental policy. They have set a goal of generating over a billion commitments through an Earth Summit website.

John Mulrow is a sustainable energy fellow with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at jmulrow@worldwatch.org.

This article is a product of Eye on Earth, Worldwatch Institute's online news service. For permission to reprint Eye on Earth content, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org. 

Disclosure: The Worldwatch Institute is a signatory of the letter delivered to President Obama.