The challenge is to devise a model that will balance economic growth with respect for the environment

Next week, world leaders gather for a momentous occasion — the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. Will it be a success? In my opinion, yes. To be sure, the negotiations have been lengthy. Even now there is more disagreement than agreement on the details of the so-called “outcome document” that will emerge. Yet that will not be the defining measure. Far more important is what the Rio conference has already accomplished. And that is to build a global movement for change.

Green strategies in practice

Rio+20 is a milestone on a long road. The famous 1992 Earth Summit put sustainable development on the global agenda. Today, we have come to a broader and more nuanced understanding of this age-old imperative: how to better balance the development needs of a growing world population — so that all may enjoy the fruits of prosperity and robust economic growth — with the necessity of conserving our planet's most precious resources: land, air and water. At Rio, more than 100 heads of state and government will join an estimated 25,000 participants to map our way ahead. For too long we have sought to burn and consume our way to prosperity. That model is dead. At Rio, we must begin to create a new one — a model for a 21st century economy that rejects the myth that there must be a zero-sum trade-off between growth and the environment. Increasingly, we understand that, with smart public policies, governments can grow their economies, alleviate poverty, create decent jobs and accelerate social progress in a way that respects the earth's finite natural resources.

In this larger sense, I believe that momentum for change is already irreversible. The evidence is all around, hiding in plain sight in countries large and small, rich and poor. Barbados, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea and South Africa, among many others, are already adopting “green growth” strategies that use limited natural resources more efficiently, create jobs and promote low-carbon development. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Kenya, Jordan, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, Senegal and Ukraine are applying new green-growth technologies in a variety of industries, from agriculture to tourism. China has committed itself to supplying 16 per cent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 and plans to invest more than $450 billion in waste recycling and clean technologies under its current five-year plan.

In Brazil, waste management and recycling employs more than 500,000 people, most of whom live on society's margins. Under its new National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, India has begun paying people to better manage natural resources, such as forests and fresh water.

Wherever you look, national and local authorities are adopting principles and practices that, taken together, could help move us from a prospect of environmental ruin and growing social inequality towards a new era of inclusive and balanced sustainable growth.

Corporate initiatives

Governments and nation-states are not alone in driving this transformation. At Rio, more than 1,000 corporate leaders from all continents will deliver a common message: business as usual no longer works. Many are members of the United Nations Global Compact — volunteers in a growing private-sector movement that understands that 21st-century corporate responsibility means corporate sustainability. Thus Nike (a champion of so-called “closed loop” manufacturing that minimises industrial pollution) has initiated a new programme called Mata no Peito — a Portuguese colloquialism for “taking on a challenge” by helping protect Brazilian forest ecosystems. Unilever has pledged to source all its raw materials from sustainable sources by 2020. Kenya's Safaricom has integrated gender equality into its internal policies to create a mother-friendly environment.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has announced it will soon go carbon-neutral. China's Broad Group produces non-electric air conditioning units that are 200 per cent more energy efficient; it is now diversifying into other energy-saving products and sustainable buildings. ToughStuff from Mauritius seeks to bring affordable and reliable solar energy to 33 million people in Africa by 2016, and the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company is working to provide rural electrification in Afghanistan and the South Pacific island nation of Tonga.

Focus on energy

Energy will be a major focus at Rio. I call it the “golden thread” that connects the dots to a sustainable future — the key driver for development, social inclusion and environmental protection, including climate change. That is why, in 2011, I established a new initiative called Sustainable Energy for All. Our aim: to ensure universal access to modern energy services for the one in five people worldwide who lack them; to reduce energy waste by doubling energy efficiency; and to double the share of renewables in the global energy mix. In Rio, leaders from government, business and civil society will announce a galaxy of actions to advance these goals, from promoting cleaner, more efficient cook-stoves to helping governments scale up their geothermal and other renewable energy potential.

Sustainable Energy for All is the partnership model of the future. The principle is simple but powerful: the United Nations uses its unrivalled convening power to bring all relevant actors to the table so they can work in common cause for the common good.

At bottom, this is what Rio+20 is all about. Yes, the negotiations themselves are very important. Agreements that can be committed to paper today will shape the debates of tomorrow. But Rio+20 goes beyond that. It is the expression of a dynamic global movement for change — and a big step forward toward the future we want.

(Courtesy: U.N. Information Centre for India and Bhutan. Ban Ki-moon is Secretary-General of the United Nations.)

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