By Danielle Carpenter (June 2012) – Rio+20 sounds like the name of a band, or perhaps a kind of sunscreen that works best in the southern hemisphere. In fact, Rio+20 is the short name for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. It will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20-22 June 2012.

Coming 20 years after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, its aim is to define pathways to a safer, more equitable, cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all. Have you heard about this conference?

World leaders will come together with thousands (literally) of participants from governments, business, non-governmental organizations, scientists and other groups to “shape” ways to reach a more sustainable, yet ever-more crowded, Earth. Participants will focus on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development. The output is meant to be a focused political document.

Scientists are even getting involved in the debates, trying to move public opinion towards accepting that “our planet’s health is ailing”. That is the basic message coming from the 2012 Living Planet Report – a science-based analysis of the health of our planet: we are using 50% more resources than the Earth produces each year; the number of species has dropped by 30% in the last 40 years; freshwater is scarce; CO2 levels are rising dramatically. The scientists who authored the report – from WWF, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network ‑ want it used as evidence for world leaders to finally turn words into action.

Yet what does it really bring to the world to have high-level leaders come together at such a conference? Without any binding agreements, ways to make countries adhere to any of the outcomes of the conference, what benefits do they bring?

For one, such events bring a heightened awareness of the challenges facing the Earth, challenges brought about mainly by human interaction with the world in which we live: jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness. Even in the absence of binding agreements that can be enforced, these challenges cannot be ignored.

Along with awareness comes dialogue. Just getting some of the more recalcitrant stakeholders (read: governments) to the table to talk about sustainable development in a long-term context is a challenge, and the fact that they would even show up is a certain success.

But should it be the role of governments, institutions or individuals to find a path towards sustainable development? Governments provide a framework within which we live, but to what extent can they put the brakes on the freedom of individuals to make their own decisions about how they want to live their lives? And just how far can one government go in persuading another to change its frameworks for the good of the planet?

Putting a price on the natural resources we use would be an effective starting point. But competitiveness oblige, most countries would not dream of heading down that road as their products and services would be priced out of the market. Therefore the effort must be global rather than local in some instances.

But in others, the effort could be local, nay individual – drive less, take public transport, fly less, eat locally grown food when possible, don’t waste water, turn off appliances. What are you doing to make our Earth safer, more equitable, cleaner, greener and more prosperous?

(This article originally appeared on Spacebridges.)

Read “The Future We Want, the renewed commitment to sustainable development of heads of state and government and high level representatives following Rio+20.

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