Hundreds of people attend the Earth Show 30 May 1992 in Rio de Janeiro prior to the opening of the Earth Summit which ran from 03 to 14 June 1992.

Forget “climate change” and grand master plans. Focus on “sustainability” and accountability.
Twenty years after world leaders met for the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero, the global plans envisioned to limit human damage to the environment have not materialized, but sustainability initiatives are making a difference, experts told Environmental Law Institute (ELI) teleconference this week.

That’s putting “sustainability” front and center in the next two weeks as leaders, and tens of thousands of activists, once again gather in Rio for “Rio + 20,” a follow-up to the 1992 conference that formed the foundation for global environmental action including biodiversity and climate change treaties.

The partisan political schism in the US over climate change is primarily focused on environmental regulation, said John Dernbach, Co-Director of the Widener University School of Law’s Environmental Law Center.

Sustainability avoids that divide because it is explicitly about making job growth, economic development, and the environment all work together for a “higher quality of life,’ he said.
Sustainability “is primarily bottom-up,” led by popular and customer demand for more environmentally viable ways for doing things, said Dernbach.

It includes initiatives like “green buildings” and sustainable products and business supply chains. Over the last 20 years, organizations and businesses have grown that help businesses go green and certify that products meet standards, Dernbach said. Governments have made a difference with appliance and auto efficiency standards.

Grassroots, Bottom-up Instead of Top-down

But the net for the US has been “modest progress,” he said, because at the same time the US carbon footprint has grown.

One focus at Rio + 20 will be aggregating all the sustainability commitments, public and private, on an internet site so people can hold those responsible accountable for following through, said Jacob Scherr, Director of Global Strategy and Advocacy, Natural Resources Defense Council.

The first Rio meeting envisioned “top-down” master plans to tackle environmental ills, with major transfers of money from industrialized to developing nations, said Scherr. But that proved unrealistic, he said, and the key now is shorter term measures but holding leaders accountable for following through on them.

To read more Breaking Energy coverage of the upcoming Rio + 20 Summit, click here, and here.

“I think we will see hundreds of millions of dollars in new commitments” involving energy and low-carbon activities coming out of Rio + 20, he said.

NRDC is working on a site called Cloud of Commitments, he said.

Carl Bruch, co-director of international programs at ELI, said the first Rio conference occurred at the end of the Cold War and amid a worldwide sense of hope and cooperation. Rio + 20 will try to regain that sense of vision and optimism, he said.

“We have to have a new structure if we’re going to make progress” to a low-carbon economy, said Scherr, and it has to be more than government. Walmart, he noted, has a bigger climate footprint than half the world’s countries, and the Gates Foundation spends more on health care annually than the World Health Organization.