A Conference of Contrasts
Coldplay’s “Paradise” played on the radio as our cab took us past a skyline of smokestacks along jammed freeways after our arrival in Rio de Janeiro this week. We were making our way to Ipanema – one of the world’s most iconic beaches, and our home for the next two weeks as we attend the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.
The irony of the song and place wasn’t lost on me, as I had heard that Rio is a city of contrasts – one of great beauty and culture. A “paradise” of sorts. But also a city of heavy industry and “favelas” (slums).
A quarter of the Brazilian population lives below the poverty line, and 9 percent (16 million people) lives on less than 70 reais (R$70) a month, or US$1.30 per person per day. But Brazil’s economy is booming, and its poverty rates have been cut in half over the past 20 years. And let’s not forget Brazil will be home to the 2014 FIFA World Cup soccer games and the 2016 Olympic Games.
Such contrasts – like poverty and progress — make Rio de Janeiro a fitting host for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. The city of more than 6 million was, after all, host to the 1992 Earth Summit, which jump-started the world’s “sustainable development” movement and led to the Kyoto Protocol (which expires this year, but that’s another story). This 20th anniversary is what the “Rio+20” part is about.
Eyeballs on Economy
But when it comes to contrasts, the world of 2012 is a drastically different one than of 1992 – economically, politically, technologically. With so much attention focused on the world economy, now is the ideal time to dust off the concept of sustainable development, reexamine it, and make it better. Why? More eyeballs on the economy now will translate to more opportunity with the Rio+20 talks to bring more attention to the good, ol’ three-legged stool of sustainable development: placing social Equity and Environment on par with the Economy.
UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon said it better at a meeting on the world economy in New York in May: “It is time to recognize that human capital and natural capital are every bit as important as financial capital.”
After reporting back from five politically charged UN climate change talks since 2007, we at EnviroMedia gravitated to the idea of a 2012 global conference that focuses on seven “Priority Areas”: jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.
That’s why we’re here. Those Priority Areas pretty much mirror what we at EnviroMedia work on every day with our clients – estuary protection on three coasts, carsharing and electric vehicles, sustainability and health programs for local government, water conservation, emergency preparedness, and providing access to healthy food.
So, that’s what I’ll be doing through June 22 in Rio:
1. Reporting back to our clients on these global issues that apply to them, and
2. Simply doing what we can to raise awareness of these issues that tend to take a back seat at home during challenging economic times and an election year.
This conference is one of empowerment as much as it is of contrast. I received credentials via the UN as part of nine “Major Groups” – Business & Industry, Children & Youth, Farmers, Indigenous Peoples, Local Authorities, NGOs, Scientific & Technological Community, Women, and Workers & Trade Unions. Some 50,000 people from around the globe are expected to be here through next week.
You will not see this kind of access at any climate talks, and the discussion platforms that have been set up for Rio+20 to give citizens (non-diplomats) the opportunity to contribute to a UN conference is unprecedented.
Over the past several months, as part of the “Rio Dialogues,” more than 10,000 people from some 200 countries have participated in online discussions related to 10 sustainable development topics. This led to 843 recommendations for action, which were narrowed down to 100, which were voted on globally. Now, four days of panel discussions in each of the 10 topic areas are taking place and, ultimately, feedback will be synthesized and presented to heads of state when high-level talks begin June 20.
Giving a Damn
This seems like a lot of bending over backward to allow for access and input. And some in the media have said Rio+20 will be a waste of time — that nothing will get done with today’s global economic and political climates. But isn’t speaking up, and sharing information and perspectives, what leads to change?
At EnviroMedia, our tagline for our company anniversary in 2012 is “15 Years of Giving a Damn.” What would the world be like if nobody gave a damn? We know big change in this world takes time. So, we’ll be here reporting from Riocentro Convention Center, letting you know who gives a damn and why, and what it means to you.