On Route to Rio+20, sitting in on the US delegation’s briefing at the Second Intersessional Meeting for Rio+20 in NYC

Rio+20 is going to be held in 6 months; however, it is more likely that you’ve heard about Brazil’s upcoming World Cup and Olympics.  Rio +20 marks two decades since the landmark 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) conference in the same city that gathered 108 world leaders to discuss the green economy and sustainable development. Through Yale’s FES 850a International Organizations and Conferences course and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) I had a chance to attend a planning meeting for Rio+20, the Second Intersessional Meeting for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) in New York City on December 15-16, 2011.

I sat in on the US delegation’s briefing on Friday, December 16 with a diverse group of stakeholders. In attendance were American government officials; industry representatives from US Steel Corporations and the US automotive lobby; NGOs such as the NRDC and interfaith groups; and Yale graduate students working with the NRDC.

At the briefing, the US’s plans and positions for Rio+20 were discussed. The US government is aiming to produce a short position statement for Rio+20 that is about 5 pages and will inspire mainstream Americans who are not normally engaged in climate change issues to become part of the solution. From the briefing it was clear that the American government sees Rio+20 as meeting that is ‘too big to fail’. That the world is at critical point where climate change is occurring and decisive action needs to be taken now to reverse and mitigate these negative changes in future development projects. There was consensus in the room that the time for talk is over and for Rio+20 to place a greater emphasis on action and accountability. Rio+20 is an opportunity to move away from traditional international meetings that are focused on reporting on successes to date and instead prioritize developing action plans that go beyond a compendium of commitments that are agreed upon but fail to be implemented.

Momentum is building for a paradigm shift for Rio+20 and problems and solutions will be approached from new angles.  This will mean moving away from thinking of environmental and development issues as huge problems requiring equally large solutions towards conceptualizing and problem-solving these issues at the local and state levels.   Rio+20 will be less grandiose and more realistic. It was emphasized at the briefing that youth will be a key part of making this conference a success. To some, this may seem as though national governments are downloading their obligations to individuals and community organizations; however, this may be a more successful approach in achieving sustainable development. Yet, the plans to engage youth were ambiguous. Over the next couple of months, it will be crucial for the US and other countries to elucidate how they can forge meaningful and fruitful partnerships with youth organizations. After this conference in NYC, the US’s homework should be to develop a clear youth engagement strategy by the next intersessioal meeting to ensure Rio+20 is a success in June 2012.