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Energy pulse

Frances Beinecke
President of the Natural Resources Defense Council

The most exciting aspect of the Rio+20 Earth Summit was the energy pulsing through the 50,000 people there who shared a concern about protecting the planet. Their passion, dedication, and actions turned it into much more than another internationally negotiated “outcome document”, making it an historic turning point in which leaders from government, business, and civil society demonstrated that deeds — rather than lofty promises — are the key to building a more sustainable future.

And it inspired a new generation of committed young leaders to remind us that their future is most at risk if we fail to confront the Earth’s most pressing challenges.

These pivotal shifts did not occur overnight. Instead, they grew out of participants’ careful preparation. NRDC, for instance, launched a Race-to-Rio campaign in June 2011 with a call for a different kind of summit. We agree with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that time is running out to address climate change, food security, and other looming crises. As UNEP documented in its GEO5 report, the world has achieved just 4 of 90 globally adopted environmental and sustainability goals. We must stop talking and start acting. To mobilize leaders to act, NRDC urged countries, corporations, and communities to come to Rio with specific plans for how they will tackle problems now — not in some distant future.

The push toward action seemed to permeate the summit. In Rio, presidents, prime ministers, mayors, CEOs and other leaders made hundreds of commitments with an estimated value of more than half a trillion dollars.

Microsoft, for instance, announced it would create a carbon fee on internal operations in more than 100 nations. Femsa, a massive soft-drink bottler in Latin America, said it would get 85 per cent of its energy in Mexico from renewable sources. A group of development banks pledged to give $175 billion to support public transit and bike lanes instead of highway construction in the world’s biggest urban centers — an initiative that will combat climate change and reduce toxic air pollution that causes cancer and heart disease.

The U.S. Government joined 400 of the world’s largest retailers and manufacturers in pledging to rid their supply chains of deforestation. Fourteen nations announced they were joining an international effort to phase out inefficient incandescent light bulbs by 2016. A transition to efficient lighting could result in annual global savings of more than $110 billion and reduce as much carbon pollution as taking more than 120 million cars off the road.

These are just some of the specific commitments made in Rio. NRDC created a website www. cloudofcommitments.org to aggregate all the key pledges with links to all the major registries and platforms. We want to stimulate dialogue about how to fulfill them and to encourage citizens to hold their leaders accountable for their promises.

The pledges listed on the website are the real legacy of the Earth Summit. They could translate into the kind of tangible change — more public transport, more marine protected areas, more access to clean water — that improves people’s lives and protects our planet, not decades from now but in the next few years.

The outcome document, in contrast, showed a disappointing lack of ambition. We had hoped for a clarion call from the world’s leaders about the urgency of climate change and other global challenges. Instead we got a turgid 49-page document — a testament to the challenge of negotiating a text when more than 190 nations must reach consensus. There were only a few small, encouraging steps forward, such as the upgrading of UNEP. We were pleased with the documents’ focus on oceans. Governments are beginning to grasp that despoiling them creates not just environmental problems, but food insecurity and economic challenges as well.

There is also a growing recognition that the oceans, like the atmosphere, are a global resource and that we all have a vested interest in reviving them. Leaders agreed to reduce overfishing and focus on the emerging threats of ocean acidification and marine plastic pollution.

But it is still disappointing that leaders could not agree to start negotiating a new agreement to conserve the high seas — the marine areas beyond national jurisdictions. Yet the energy in Rio revealed that people aren’t waiting for a document

to tell us how to protect the oceans or fight climate change. We are already doing it, and many of the efforts are led by young people. It was thrilling to see that a new generation is fully engaged in the movement to preserve our natural systems. I was especially moved by the words of Brittany Trilford, a 17-year-old student from New Zealand, who addressed the opening plenary urging world leaders to take concrete action to protect the planet.

“I stand here with fire in my heart,” she said. “I’m confused and angry at the state of the world, and I want us to work together now to change this. We are here today to solve the problems that we have caused as a collective, to ensure that we have a future.”

Brittany participated on a panel with me and Severn Suzuki, who — aged 12 — rocked the first Earth Summit 20 years ago. I was inspired to be with them, to hear their dedicated focus and the logic of what they asked of all of us: to end the paralysis and start acting. Brittany reminded us that she spoke for three billion people under 25. “Think of me as half of the world,” she told the crowd.

We must keep those three billion young people — and their children — in mind as we go forward from Rio+20. We must create a cleaner future today. The best outcome of the Earth Summit would be friendly competition in which nations and cities and corporations vie to see who does more to become sustainable: who removed the most diesel pollution or generated the most solar power.

Such accomplishments, added up all over the world, are what will move the global community forward into a more sustainable future.

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