Kilometers of press releases drafted. Hundreds of preparatory meetings convened. Thousands of strategies revised. All this is happening in the lead-up to the 2012 Earth Summit, when 50,000 people will descend on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to convey their vision of sustainable development to global leaders.
The participants in the original Rio conference in 1992 probably never thought that their achievements would be the catalyst for a global conference of this scale 20 years later. The difference between then and now is that, given the urgency of global action, there probably won’t be a Rio+40. By 2032, at current rates of consumption and population growth, our world will require 50 percent more water, energy, and food; with climate change exacerbating security concerns, humanity is projected to suffer catastrophic consequences.
The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) came a long way in developing indicators that nations would strive to meet. But in many areas, these goals have yet to be met. Why does having an “improved” source of drinking water not mean having safe drinking water? Why does one-third of humanity still lack improved sanitation? And is improved sanitation safe for young children to use?
What I fear the most is that this summit will turn into a cacophony of good intentions. The 50,000 people at the Rio event will struggle to meet and convey their ideas to one another in the short span of a week. If we are to achieve real, long-lasting impact from this summit, we must reach out to as many people as possible and build on the momentum that Rio generates in innovative ways.
Impact evaluation and information and communication technologies (ICTs) have yet to be applied successfully across many sectors of sustainable development or used to their full potential at similar mega-conferences. Perhaps participants could evaluate the impact of the conference in their sector not only during the event, but also in regular intervals after Rio? Additionally, why not hold a virtual Rio+20 every couple of months, where participants get to virtually network across sectors to share ideas with other participants and continue to engage a broader web of stakeholders?
The dialogue that Rio encourages among all actors is critical, but let’s prevent Rio from becoming a repetitive exercise. Sustainable development needs to happen now, and six months from now, and in perpetuity. We must have unprecedented outreach and a long-lasting impact in order to make historic changes.