Rio+20 User Guide        
      UNEP at Work                
The future Sha Zukang we want

Sha Zukang

Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development

Twenty years ago, in June 1992, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro for a landmark event: the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit). Its historic outcomes sparked an unprecedented sense of enthusiasm and optimism. Agreement was reached on important conventions and principles, addressing such issues as biodiversity, climate change and forests. The Earth Summit sent a message that working together can lead to solutions.

Twenty years later, the world has changed in ways we could have never predicted. There have been great advances in global economic growth, life expectancies and poverty reduction. The way we communicate and do business has been significantly revolutionised. Information and communication technologies have opened new pathways and channels for education, communication and entrepreneurship.

Yet, at the same time, new challenges have emerged and old ones have intensified. We’ve added approximately 2.5 billion people to the globe and are projected to reach nine billion by 2050. Meanwhile, the natural capital that underpins our livelihoods is significantly diminishing. Climate change and its impacts have become more profound; there are new challenges related to water and food security; a global financial and economic crisis hindered progress in some areas of human development; and unsustainable consumption and production patterns have accelerated, causing damage that, in some cases, is irreversible to our natural heritage.

In 1992, Rio set us on the direction of a more balanced, sustainable future; yet we have not figured out how to stay on course and how to translate principles into action. Progress in implementation has been found seriously lacking. This is why the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) arrives not a moment too soon. Heads of State and Government, business, and civil society will gather once again to recommit to the promises they made in 1992 and to put us on a sustainable path. Our global challenges and our jointly tied destinies implore that we work together for a better future and commit to seeing it realised. In other words, this is a conference of implementation.

So, how do we ensure that Rio + 20 delivers? Many have stressed that its outcome should not be a repetition of Agenda 21 or other treaties or agreed outcomes. They say it should build upon earlier achievements, concentrate on concrete steps that address implementation gaps, and give shape and form to our vision. It must be focused, ambitious and action-oriented. I have called on delegations to accomplish deliverables of fundamental significance to poverty reduction and the common well-being of all countries, especially on food, water and energy.

The outcome document should make transformational decisions on the two themes of the Conference — a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development, as well as a number of other priority areas.

The first theme points to the need to steer economic development in a more sustainable direction. It means promoting investments in sectors and activities with lower environmental impacts. At the same time, a green economy must contribute to poverty eradication, employment and other social objectives. Different development levels of different countries embarking on this path must be taken into full account. And knowledge and technology sharing will be critical in any outcome achieved at Rio. When it comes to the institutional framework, the three pillars of sustainable development — social, economic, and environmental — must be better integrated to deliver desired outcomes. Such a framework should also include enhanced review and reporting on progress, as well as effective addressing of continuing, new and emerging challenges. I expect that strengthened governance will provide enabling conditions for more responsible, accountable action, at the international, regional and national levels.

For many participants, another expected outcome at Rio is the launch of a process to elaborate Sustainable Development Goals (SD Gs), which can build upon the Millennium Development Goals and feed into the post-2015 UN development agenda. Such goals should protect the health of the environment, while ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable are addressed. They would be designed to help governments and other stakeholders focus their energies and monitor progress. Critical areas for action, which may provide focus for SD Gs, include water, energy, food, jobs, cities, oceans, disaster preparedness and poverty eradication, among others.

Finally, Rio+20 offers an opportunity for governments and major groups, including business and industry, to announce new and measurable commitments to make sustainable development a reality. These commitments, along with the SD Gs, will help ensure that all sectors of society are engaged and that promises are kept.

After 1992, we were not able to adequately stand by our commitments as a global community. We must ensure that it is different this time. Given the magnitude of our world’s challenges, it is essential that Rio+20 be equally ambitious in scope. We need firm commitments that make a difference in the lives of the poor, and we need decisions that help humanity live within the carrying capacity of the planet. Governments, members of civil society, and business and industry should come to Rio ready to commit; come with initiatives that will break new ground. They must send a strong message to younger generations: we are responsible, we think long-term, and we are willing to work for the good of all humankind.

The Rio+20 outcome document is titled “The Future We Want” and this is what we need to deliver: the vision, hope, determination, and action to create a better future for all.

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