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Global Issues

Rio+20: Is a $513 Billion Down Payment Enough?

Advances in reducing poverty, environmental protection, and other global issues threaten the status quo—a report from Rio+20.

Produced at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development was a document that had 27 principles intended to guide our sustainable future.

At that time, it was unclear whether the goals were achievable. They were, after all, a stated vision of the future. Goals such as assuring environmental protection in the development process and eradication of poverty were dreams, not expected outcomes.

Flash forward: In 2012, versus 1992, we have clear actions we can take to alleviate poverty and protect the environment, which were at the core of the original Rio Declaration.

We have living proof that we can thwart climate change through the successes we have had in renewable electricity and efficiency. Plus, we can make real inroads in diminishing poverty—we’ve seen success with microfinance and micropower solutions, and with bringing mobile phone coverage to some of the most impoverished parts of the world.

Yet, reducing poverty, advancing social equity, and ensuring environmental protection threaten the status quo.

As opposed to 1992, in 2012, this threat to ending our fossil fuel-based economy is real. The threat to end poverty and create equal opportunity is real as well.

Walking into Rio+20, these realities were clear. On the opening day, UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon announced that more than 50 governments have launched new clean energy strategies and private investors pledged to invest more than $50 billion regarding the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All. The program’s goal is to double renewable energy production and energy efficiency gains while providing all people access to modern electricity services by 2030. The initiative ultimately aims to benefit more than 1 billion people.

Walking out of the conference, the UN pledges totaled $513 billion from governments and companies: 692 individual commitments from governments, plus hundreds of pledges from the private sector. And everyone recognized that the private sector is key.

Jose-Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was quoted as saying, “Without the private sector it’s not going to work. While governments put up the seed money, the big numbers come from the private sector. The private sector is looking at green growth with great interest, seeing it as an opportunity, as jobs, as investment.”

Rio+20 has highlighted seven areas that need priority attention; these include decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans, and disaster readiness.

I have noted that climate change and resource constraints represent the greatest economic opportunities of our lifetime. As we move forward to reduce expensive and volatile fossil fuel use, boost renewable energy, conserve water, and alleviate poverty, we are driving toward a new economy through impact investing.

Rio+20 has set the stage. Governments, NGOs, and corporations have made a $513 billion down payment on the next economy. To get a payback, we have to make it real.

Kandeh Yumkella, the UN Industrial Development Organization chief was quoted at the conference, “Twenty years ago, we made commitments, but there was no mechanism to take any action. We didn’t develop a charity model. These are real projects.”

Further, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the conference, “These huge numbers give a sense of the scale and growth of investment going into sustainable development. They are part of a growing global movement for change. Our job now is to create a critical mass, an irresistible momentum.”

But, to get irresistible momentum, it now comes down to motivation. So, what is more motivating: for example, changing the fact that 1.3 billion people do not have access to electricity, and 2.7 billion rely on wood, dirty fuels or animal waste for cooking and heating; or making certain that leading polluting industries continue to deliver profits?

Nnimmo Bassey, chairman of Friends of the Earth International said, “Governmental positions have been hijacked by corporate interests linked to polluting industries,” yet some companies and industries are implementing change.

I think in the future those industries that do not change will no longer be the leading industries. And polluting industries will most certainly be extinct. And therein lies the ultimate threat to the status quo.

We just made a $513 billion down payment on our future led by governments and industry. Was that enough risk capital to motivate us to make it real this time?

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