3 Events to Follow at Rio+20

In case you haven’t noticed (which would be almost impossible with all the email, blog and listeserv overload), the world is frantically preparing for the latest effort to make development sustainable, globally. UN officials, governments, NGOs, businesses and others are headed to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, aka Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro this June. This month, they are busy with preparatory meetings with informal titles such as ‘informal-informal negotiations’ and zero drafts flying around.

In full disclosure, I must admit, I have my doubts about the attempt to marry development and sustainability as the only viable path into the future. However, I too, look forward to these meetings. We sure need a change, as reports coming from the UN, OECD and basically everyone else tell us, we have not been doing so great on this sustainable development path since the official kick-off in the first United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in 1992.

The Kyoto protocol- the slim effort to stave off climate change and address its impacts, that came out of UNFCCC, created in Rio back in 1992, is evaporating into thin air this year with no meaningful replacement in sight. We really do need a strong commitment from governments all around the world (but let’s face it, mostly from the US government) to tackle the real issues that came out of Rio in 1992: climate change, poverty, equity, biodiversity and the survival of the world’s ecosystems, unsustainable consumption patterns and rapid urbanization.

While I suspect that groundbreaking achievements at the UN and national state level are not very likely, there are other reasons to look forward to the Rio+20 events. Around the official negotiations, side events are scheduled throughout this spring and into the summer. Some of these side events bring together the most exciting work that is being done around the world by many people who choose not to wait for a globally agreed breakthrough. Here are 3 events that are worth waiting for in Rio+20:

1. Science, Technology, Innovation –  One of the most promising side events happening in Rio immediately prior to the formal UN conference is the International Council for Science Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development. The forum will bring together scientists, policy makers, civic organizations, industry and business leaders to foster a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary dialog about scientific and policy innovations that are necessary for sustainable development. Topics include climate change, biodiversity and urban well being. Watch out for the urban theme – it might just be the major thing coming out of this round of the global festivities.

2. Local action 3-in-1 – One of the most interesting phenomena that arose in the wake of the international (and to a large extent national) level paralysis that characterized most major efforts since the original Rio summit, is that local authorities, in cooperation with involved citizens, businesses and organizations, have been on fire working to find real-life solutions to issues posed by the tensions between the three pillars of sustainability – environment, economy and society. ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability is an association of local governments that are committed to pursuing sustainable development. With over 1220 members, ICLEI serves as an enormous network for program development an information flow directly between the people on the ground.

Right before Rio+20, June 14-17, ICLEI is convening the World Congress in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Bringing together many of its active city members as well as researchers, experts and international organizations. The programming is all about inspired action- learning from current city activities and cutting edge research to come up with real action plans. With a little luck, this will not be a missed opportunity to mobilize an incredible force of local power.

Also, if you, like me, believe that cities are fascinating ecosystems, with interplay of built and natural environments, and that some of our most valued social and cultural relations develop around this interplay, you may also want to pay attention to ICLEI’s Urban Nature conference preceding the World Congress. Finally, ICLEI is holding its Global Town Hall in paralleled and on premise of the official Rio+20 conference to provide local authority presence and representation in the negotiations.

3. Ecological economics – If you are interested in learning how our economic world view need to change in order to achieve sustainability (as opposed to sustainable development), you may want to check out the program of the International Association for Ecological Economics conference, taking place in  Rio immediately prior to the Rio+20 conference. Ecological economics, as an academic discipline, has been arguing for a few decades now that we have the wrong idea about how the economy works. Taking on the historical and theoretical roots of UNCSD, the “Limits to Growth,” in a gross simplification, ecological economics argues for the treatment of the economic system as the sub system that is in the large, complex and tangled society-environment relations. It is an appealing theory that implies inherent limits to the consumption of global favorites such as fossil fuel and other non-renewable resources.

In tandem with Rio+20, the theme of the conference is “challenges and contributions for a green economy”, with tracks addressing issues such as green growth, sustainable consumption and community resource management. Granted, it is an academic meeting, but it is one that will sure offer some of the most interesting intellectual debates about the meaning of a sustainable economy. I look forward to being there.

Peleg Kremer is a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School. Her research focuses on urban social-ecological systems, ecosystem service and urban food systems and she teaches at the New School’s Environmental Studies program.

Peleg Kremer

I am an environmental scholar, social scientist and geographer studying urban sustainability, social-ecological urban system, urban food systems, and socio-spatial aspects of environmental planning for sustainability. My current research includes conceptual and empirical quantitative investigations of urban ecosystem services (UES) as they interact with the urban social-ecological system. In particular, I am interested in questions of scale, thresholds, tradeoffs and synergies in the supply and demand of UES, access to and the distribution of UES, the relationship between urban structure and the provision of UES as well as the influence of land change and development policies on UES. I earned my PhD from the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware working on local food systems as a strategy for urban sustainability and recently finished my post-doctoral fellowship in Urban Ecosystems at the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School University in New York City.

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