The Road to Rio

Many of you may have seen the recent publicity for the upcoming United Nations summit commonly known as Rio +20. The title refers to the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, which occurred in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. That meeting produced both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as a biodiversity treaty. It also included the agreement to support sustainable development – Agenda 21. This meeting deals with the progress and future of sustainable development. Sustainable development has been defined as economic development that can occur without using finite resources. Common themes include economic development of poorer populations while doing so without further degradation of the lived environment.

Perhaps due to the collapse of historic communism just a couple of years earlier, the focus of the sustainability movement that came out of the 1992 conference was and is based on liberal capitalism…that happiness for persons results from their ability to prosper and have individual freedoms. Because prosperity is so broad and covers so much, the conference is less “environmental” per se, and much more broad based. Indeed the conference is run by the United Nations Division of Economic Affairs, not the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The United States is represented by the State Department.

The goal of the conference is to move the conversation on sustainability forward and to bring more concrete success for the goals of sustainable development. It is expected to result in a new more specific agreement between governments with a new institutional framework for sustainable development as well as new initiatives from business and the non-profit sector to take actions to move sustainable development. In the words of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, a successful Rio+20 means that “more people will have the lights on, will have access to clean water, and an ability to prosper in a healthier world.”

Much has already happened in the last 20 years. On the concrete front, the major economies have called for an end to economic subsidies that may warp distribution of resources, and studies have documented how much is spent on energy subsidies and agricultural subsidies and how these may warp the world economic systems. This has led to a call to end these subsidies. While this has not occurred, it was eye opening to see that almost 1 trillion dollars (1/13 of global output) is spent on subsidizing fossil fuel energy usage in some countries, such as Iran, Russia, and Venezuela, and to a lesser extent the more developed countries such as the United States. The increasing evidence of human caused climate change has also focused attention on the relationship between energy and the environment as well as impacts on human welfare and development.

Much however remains to be done. While an increase in welfare for large numbers of the world’s poor has occurred, environmental degradation has not stabilized. There is a new focus on the effects of climate change, climate change adaptation, and related issues such as water scarcity and food security. There is also concern about whether or not GDP is the best measurement of development. The rest of the world realizes that energy, environment, climate, and economic policy cannot be made without integrated consideration.

I will be attending and speaking at the gathering before and during the summit starting on June 13, and the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources (CLEAR) at the University of North Carolina School of Law will be co-sponsoring a program on the role of law in climate change adaptation and sustainability on June 19.

While I personally remain unsure how much will be accomplished, I intend to bring posts to my blog in the Houston Chronicle in real time.