Sustainable development hopes pinned on Rio+20 conference

A spirit of determination prevailed at Tuesday’s UN press briefing in Johannesburg about the Rio+20 conference, an international event aimed at igniting renewed political commitment to sustainable development issues that will take place in Brazil in June this year.

The event, known formally as the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, will bring together world leaders like François Hollande, Vladimir Putin and Jacob Zuma. 

Preparations for Rio+20 have been intense with 192 member states involved in pre-conference negotiations. It will include more than 500 side events.

Twenty years after the original “Earth Summit” was held in Rio de Janeiro, organisers hope the 2012 conference will “lay the foundations for economic growth, respect for the planet and social equity,” said Helen Hoedl, deputy director of the UN Information Centre of South Africa.

The conference will tackle two themes:


  • How to create a “green economy” while simultaneously striving to eradicate poverty; and
  • Institutional and political support for sustainable development.

According to Lana Lovasic, a social and economic development specialist, building a “green economy” will help avoid social catastrophe.

The way we use fuels “will likely not meet future demands,” Lovasic told the Mail & Guardian. If this happens, it will cause “massive social and political unrest”.

For South Africa, “using green technologies and systems to help [people] out of poverty” will be “critical” to ensure long-term economic and political stability.

Green is the new pink
Women will be the biggest winners in this envisaged movement to global green, suggested Maria Mbengashe, the UN Development Programme (UNDP)’s programme manager for Environment and Energy in South Africa. Increased energy supplies would “open new opportunities to women and girls”, because “they are most affected by the lack of access to energy,” she said. 

Lovasic added that, in areas of low development “women tend to be the most reliable at ensuring development initiatives are successful” since they are “more focused on things like feeding the family and education than men are.” Issues such as male migrant labour or men leaving the home to fight, might contribute to this, she said.  

“Micro finance has traditionally focused on lending to women for this exact reason – more impact.The same would therefore be true in terms of energy access – the women would be able to do more in the areas in which they live.”

The long road to Rio
Speakers at Tuesday’s briefing were generally upbeat about the progress that had been made in the last 20 years. 

Between 16 000 and 20 000 new NGO’s sprang up as a result of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Hoedl remarked. She felt this was an indicator of public mobilisation in the wake of greater awareness. 

Dora Nteo, chief policy advisor for sustainable development at the environmental affairs department cited the reversed effects on the ozone layer as another victory. “I could spend all day telling you about our successes,” she said.  

But all agree there is still a long way to travel. 

Cecilia Kinuthia-Njenga, regional programme co-ordinator for UN Environment Programme (UNEP) admitted that only 21 paragraphs out of 400 in the current negotiating text have been agreed upon. “At the last meeting, we had to agree to reconvene,” she said. 

The African voice in the green debate
Despite the slow pace of these negotiations, the South African delegation has a clear vision for what should be achieved at next month’s conference. 

Nteo, who will be part of this group, outlined the African perspective. 

She feels that the suggested move to adopt a “roadmap” for the way forward is premature for African countries. 

“We first need to ask ‘what does it mean for our countries?'” she said. She argued instead for principled discussion about what a green economy should, and should not, do. “For example, it should not increase trade barriers,” she said.   

The young, the green and the peaceful
Ella Bella, youth ambassador for UNEP, highlighted the need for youth involvement in the process. “What are we doing about the economy that is being created by people and presidents that will not be around in 20 years?” she said. 

Greenpeace, who see their role as providing “fresh ideas” in the debate, warned against wasting time. 

“Over 180-million people could die as a result of climate change by 2100,” said Fiona Musana, communications director for Greenpeace Africa. Setting goals by 2015 – Rio+20’s discussed timeframe – is inadequate, she argued. 

“Focus should be on the next 10 years,” she said. “We want action and we want it now.”  – Written by Thalia Randall

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