Leading Environment and Sustainability Advocates Gather to Discuss Upcoming Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development

Advocates for the environment and sustainability gathered at American University Washington College of Law in April to discuss the upcoming Rio+20 United Nations conference on sustainable development, to be held June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Thousands of world leaders, directors of NGOs, and international organizations discussed building a green economy to achieve sustainable development and alleviate poverty, and advancing the institutional framework for sustainable development by improving international coordination and support for developing countries.

Two panels at the event discussed what has been achieved in global environmental law since the 1992 conference and what is left to accomplish. The upcoming U.N. conference falls on the 40th anniversary of the first conference, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm, Sweden, the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, and the 10th anniversary of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

David Hunter, the director of the International Legal Studies Program and Program on International and Comparative Environmental Law at American University Washington College of Law, began the conference with a look back on previous earth summits.

The 1992 conference “felt like the first time we could have an honest conversation in environmental law and really focus on the tremendous challenges we saw in sustainability,” he said.

The conference marked the emergence of the global environmental movement and achieved two major treaties on environmental law and the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. But a lot of the achievements have since stalled, he said.

“We’re recognizing the difficulty of what we want to do, which is balance human activity with the limits of the biosphere,” Hunter said. “In the next 20 years, the law will continue to be a way to address this conundrum, and it will call for us to be innovative and flexible.”

Jacob Scherr, the director of global strategy and advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the 1992 conference was “extraordinary” in its ability to raise awareness, especially among young people, of the pressure that a growing population puts on the environment, and the increased recognition of stakeholders to their global responsibilities.

The treaties that arose from that summit were a good start, he said, but “the problem you run into is that it’s very easy to sign treaties. It’s very hard to get them implemented.” Now, players that didn’t exist on the global sphere in 1992 — such as New York and California — are taking a lead role on sustainability issues, he said.

“How do we engage all these entities in a new legal system that recognizes that they have an impact but also a responsibility?” Scherr said. “There’s a role for a whole new generation of international lawyers.”

Several panelists lamented the fact that Brazil — as well as other global players — has displayed a lack of leadership on the issues of the environment and sustainability.

“We have not come far from Rio,” said Marcos Orellana, director of the Human Rights and Environment Program at the Center for International Environmental Law. “There have been hundreds of commissions since Rio – have they solved the problems of the environment? Not really. We don’t see a visionary position of governance about where they see the policymaking going.”

Enforcement of treaties and commitments has presented a problem, several panelists mentioned.

“I think one thing I would like to see focused on, as a lawyer, is the importance of environmental enforcement,” said Charles DiLeva, chief counsel on Climate Change, Sustainable Development and International Law at the World Bank. “I don’t think voluntary markets are going to solve these problems.”

But the conference presents opportunities to be optimistic about, panelists said.

“We live in a connected world, and we have the ability through social media to reach billions of people over the next 60 days,” Scherr said. “We would like this to be the first summit in history that produces a web-based registry of commitments from the various players, so that people can see what’s being done, what’s not being done, and we can use the power of social media to pressure institutions to do more and congratulate those who have made accomplishments.

“Young people are disenchanted. We have to give them hope that the leadership is going to make a commitment to a more sustainble future.”

“It’s very hard to be extremely optimistic these days,” added Claudia de Windt, senior legal specialist in the Department of Sustainable Development at the Organization of American States. “There are so many commitments, and when you compare it to the action on the ground, it’s very disappointing.”

But, according to de Windt, the greatest legacy of the 1992 summit was the set of principles that were adopted. Since then, advocates have seen progress, including more heads of states looking at sustainable development and the increased use of environmental impact assessments.

“I certainly hope that a lot of good ideas and renewed partnerships come out of Rio,” de Windt said. “I would be very happy if countries would ratify their commitment to the principles.”