National Press Club Event, Speaker Series 2011

By Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Secretary-General of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here. I am delighted to speak to you today about the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – or Rio+20 – as it is known.

At the outset, let me thank my hosts:

  • ICLEI [International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives], or Local Governments for Sustainability. You are a long-time partner of the United Nations, going back to Rio 1992; and
  • the US Green Building Council, the custodian of the well-known LEED green building standard.

Speaking of hosts, I am very pleased that His Excellency, the Ambassador of Brazil, is with us.

As you know, Brazil is the host country of the Conference. They are doing a fantastic job in ensuring that Rio+20 is a great success.

Let me also express my appreciation to all of you in the audience. I hope you will contribute to Rio+20, as this is very much a conference about you, and about the future of the planet we share.

My topic today is “the road to Rio+20.” This is a road “back to the future”.

Some have called Rio+20 the Conference for the Future. The UN Secretary-General recently called it one of the most important meeting in the history of the United Nations.

Preparing for Rio+20 is a collective task. It belongs to all of us.

Let me give you a rough idea of today’s talk.

First, I will address why Rio+20 is not “just another UN conference”, why everyone here should care about its outcome.

Second, the General Assembly resolution calling for Rio+20 asks us to consider both the progress we have made and the remaining gaps in implementing commitments on sustainable development. I will briefly review progress and gaps.

Third, we have been asked to consider new and emerging challenges. I will discuss the important changes since 1992 and how they shape our strategy going forward.

Fourth, I will speak about the two themes of the Conference that were chosen by the General Assembly.

One is green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. We must see how a green economy focus can help accelerate progress towards sustainable development.

The second theme is the institutional framework for sustainable development. In other words, governance. Rio+20 offers an opportunity to initiate long-overdue reforms. International institutions must function well. Otherwise, problems that affect us all, will not get solved.

Finally, I will discuss how you can help.

Let’s begin.

Why is Rio+20 so important?

Right now, humanity stands at a crossroads.

Some signs point in the right direction – for example, strong economic performance has contributed to steep reductions in poverty in a number of developing countries. Improved child health and education, including for girls, are other positive signs.

Yet, other signs point in the wrong direction. Last week, for example, a report on the world’s oceans found that accelerated environmental changes are causing much more serious damage than previously thought.

The concept of tipping points is familiar in discussions on climate change and scientists worry we may be accelerating towards them.

So, as environmental change accelerates, we, as an international community, must accelerate our actions! We must advance faster on the path to sustainable development.

Sure, we can continue on our current unsustainable development path. But, we know that if we do, one planet will not be enough to provide all the world’s population with high living standards.

Or, we can choose the sustainable path. One that represents a convergence of two of humanity’s noblest aspirations and most important responsibilities. What are they? To provide universal human development and human dignity, and to safeguard our planet for all generations to come.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Sustainable development is not an option! It is the only path that allows all of humanity to share a decent life on this, one planet.

Rio gives our generation the opportunity to choose this path.

We know that the three pillars of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental – are closely interdependent. We cannot continue to wreak havoc on the environment and the earth’s ecosystems. It will only become harder to sustain progress on social and economic development.

The planet is not in good health at the moment. I mentioned the case of oceans. But there are other warning signs. We see food, oil and other commodity prices at historic highs.

The crises we face are interlinked. Food and energy prices move together more closely than ever. Our dependence on fossil fuels worsens climate change. This threatens food production in some of the most densely populated and poorest places on earth.

How can we tackle these inter-linked crises? The answer is straightforward – through cooperation at the global level.

This is the reason that the United Nations exists. And that is the reason why Rio+20 is so critically important at this moment in history.

I am reminded of Sir Isaac Newton’s remark about standing on the shoulders of giants.

We, too, must build on those that came before us. We must build on the legacy of the 1992 Earth Summit and 2002 Johannesburg Summit.

And what is that legacy? Let me list three items.

First, there are important principles agreed upon at Rio in 1992. To name a few – common but differentiated responsibilities polluter pays prior informed consent the precautionary principle.

These are our starting point for Rio+20.

Second, we have the Rio Conventions – climate change, biodiversity, desertification – and the forest principles. And on this note, if I may add that we are working hard to promote the International Year of Forests, under the theme, Forests for People.

Third, we have an action plan, Agenda 21. That plan is very ambitious and comprehensive. And much of the action plan remains relevant.

There has been progress. We see it in Government policies and in business strategies. At the international level, the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing – agreed last year – is one example.

In the US, we have examples of success. The United States’ acid rain programme was a pioneer in applying the polluter pays principle. By putting a price on pollution, this programme created big improvements in air quality at relatively low cost.

All these principles, conventions and action agenda continue to be valid but are not consistently applied. These have run up against major challenges in implementation. That is one reason our progress has been too slow, especially in climate change negotiations.

Now is the time to accelerate progress. Nature waits for no one, and nature’s warning signs are flashing.

So, in Rio+20, our focus is not on new principles or new conventions.

What we need is renewed commitment.

It would be a big mistake if countries were to reopen agreements reached at Rio 1992 or at the Johannesburg Summit in 2002.

Rio+20 must register a triple plus: a plus on political commitment a plus on partnership and a plus in action on the ground.

The United States of America is a country that people around the world admire for its “can do” attitude. Here, people believe that no problem is too big for human ingenuity to solve. The world has never needed that ingenuity more than it does today. The world needs your leadership!

Dear Friends,

Rio+20 is less than a year away. Time is short. We know where we have made progress, and where we have fallen behind. On that basis, we must set clear priorities.

In addition to the two themes, Member States have highlighted a number of emerging challenges for priority attention. They include:

  • green jobs and social inclusion;
  • energy access, efficiency and sustainability;
  • food security and sustainable agriculture;
  • sound water management;
  • sustainable cities;
  • management of the oceans; and
  • improved resilience and disaster preparedness. 

Climate change cuts across all of these areas, as well as being a high priority in its own right.

Another cross-cutting priority is particularly relevant for developing countries. At the United Nations, we call it – the means of implementation, which essentially includes technology, financing and capacity building.

You may say that these are not really new challenges. You are right. But they have taken on more serious dimensions in recent years. Let
me make a few observations on each of these challenges.

First, on green jobs and social inclusion.

We have made progress on the social pillar of sustainable development, but it still remains weak. Job creation is a big challenge facing all countries today, including the United States. Unemployment is a scourge not only for those without work, but for their families.

At Rio, Governments need to share lessons on what policies related to a green economy can create the most jobs.

Energy access and energy security are important priorities. Energy poverty is still widespread in Africa and South Asia. Some 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity. Almost twice that number rely on the traditional use of biomass for cooking.

There is a proposal to launch at Rio+20 a global initiative for universal energy access by 2030. Ambitious goals for energy efficiency and renewable energy are also part of the package.

If the international community can endorse such an initiative it would be a milestone. A genuine win-win, by bringing environment and development benefits together.

Rio+20 could also advance international efforts to ensure food security.

Even with the great advances of the Green Revolution, nearly one billion people are still hungry or undernourished.

Now, farmers around the world experiment with integrated soil, water and plant management methods. These methods blend modern science and traditional knowledge.

U.S. foundations helped to launch the original green revolution. At Rio+20, you can join with others to accelerate an “evergreen revolution.” This revolution will meet the growing global food demand while protecting soils, water and biodiversity. This is the way of the future.

Water is another high priority. It is essential to life, the lifeblood of farmers. It has long been taken for granted. This must change.

Rising demand is running up against greater scarcity. In many places, desertification and drought are becoming more severe. This is happening even as flooding takes a heavy toll on lives and livelihoods.

The risk of conflict over scarce water looms large. As does the challenge of coping with water stress. Closer international cooperation will be needed to avert conflict.

Let’s turn to cities. They are concentrations of human energy and creativity. Both the source of sustainable development problems and the laboratories for solving them.

Most of the developing world’s population will live in cities and towns by 2020. Three-quarters of the developed world’s population already does. This means that urban planners and managers, transport planners, real estate developers, architects and engineers all have a crucial role in shaping a sustainable planet.

Consider this. The World Resources Institute estimates that buildings alone account for roughly 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Add transport and the manufacturing of building materials – and the number rises to the 20-25 per cent range.

I cannot overemphasize the significance of the work of organizations like the two that are co-hosting today’s event – ICLEI and the US Green Business Council. Other initiatives are equally important – like the C40 [Cities Climate Leadership Group] – where the United States plays a leadership role.

Next June, I would like to see the world’s mayors and local authorities at Rio. Bring your concrete initiatives to scale up and build on the valuable work you’ve been doing. Let’s set more ambitious goals.

The world’s oceans are too heavily exploited and too little managed. The dire state of many fisheries is hard evidence. Many would like to see forceful actions agreed at Rio to accelerate implementation of chapter 17 of Agenda 21 on protection of the oceans. This is long overdue.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Significant environmental changes are already upon us, often affecting vast areas at a time. Many economies and societies are under stress. They must adapt to difficult circumstances.

Building resilience is crucial. We need earth observation and early warning systems. The United States government and scientific communities have much to offer.

Also crucial are enhanced prevention and preparedness.

At Rio+20, governments and others could commit to work together more closely to strengthen international management of natural disasters and support resilience building efforts in vulnerable developing countries.

Much can be achieved in all these priority areas through strengthened global partnerships. Through knowledge-sharing networks. The United States government and the private sector are leading actors in many of the areas I mentioned. Your input, your cooperation, is critical!

Technology cooperation and finance will also be crucial to tackling sustainable development challenges. The biggest challenges and opportunities are clearly in the fast growing economies of the developing world.

So-called green technologies will need to be deployed widely in the developing economies. This will provide them the opportunity to take a greener path to development than was taken by wealthier countries.

So far, that has not happened on the scale needed.

As innovation leader of the world, the United States has a crucial role to play in fostering the development, and diffusion, of green technologies.

To acquire technologies to build greener infrastructure and industries, finance will be needed. Much of the financing for building greener economies will be mobilized by developing countries themselves. But, international financial support will be needed to move towards greener development, especially in the least developed countries. Perhaps Rio+20 will launch a new public and private financing initiative, like a global green economy fund.

The United States has been, and continues to be, the largest single financial supporter of international development. That continued and enhanced support is crucial if we are to succeed!

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to emphasize my main points. Rio+20 will need to set the sustainable development agenda for the coming decades. At the Earth Summit in 1992, Agenda 21 was launched. In Johannesburg, we initiated partnerships. But momentum has been lost since. At Rio+20 we will need to rebuild and then sustain momentum.

This is our Conference objective – – to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, and to reflect that in a focused political document.

The Rio+20 themes – green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development — are meant to provide focus for this objective. Let me turn to these two themes now.

Green economy points to the need to steer economic development in a more sustainable direction. It means promoting investments in sectors and activities with lower environmental impacts. At the same time, a green economy must contribute to poverty eradication, employment and other social objectives.

Last June, President Obama made the following observation:

I Quote: “As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs -– but only if we accelerate that transition … And only if we rally together and act as one nation –- workers and entrepreneurs; scientists and citizens; the public and private sectors.” End of quote.
[Pres. Obama, June 15, 2010,]

I fully agree with him!

Clean energy does have that potential in many countries. Some countries are already making it a reality. Areas like sustainable agriculture, green transport, and green buildings are all also potentially large employers.

In moving towards green economies, some job losses will be unavoidable. For example, as demand slows for coal and other fossil fuels, jobs may be lost. Governments understandably worry about those costs!

But we must find ways of fairly sharing the burdens as well as the benefits of adjustment. We can all benefit from sharing our experiences of how to make a green economy dynamic, efficient, inclusive and fair.

Each country is free to chart its own course, find its own pathway to a green economy… given its national circumstances and challenges.

Some countries remain sceptical about the benefits of a green economy. They are worried about possible negative implications – on growth, on poverty, on trade and market access. These concerns need to be understood and addressed in order to generate global momentum for action and for partnerships.

Investments in green power, clean vehicles and clean fuels are becoming important growth drivers from Korea to Denmark from China to Brazil. China is moving ahead rapidly in renewables. It is now the largest producer of solar panels. Brazil is a global leader in bio-ethanol.

The United States has important clean energy and other green technology cooperation agreements with China, India and other emerging economies.

I ask you to consider how Rio+20 can build upon such cooperation, deepen it, and broaden it, to engage all developed and developing countries. How can we create an ambitious programme of green technology cooperation what we have called a “great green technological transformation”?

If we are going to move our economies down a green path, a green economy roadmap or guideline, can help us chart our path. It should include a broad menu of policy options, toolkits, and a set of milestones to help us measure progress. I believe this is something Rio+20 can deliver.

Finally, we need better governance for sustainable development at the global level. At the UN, we call this the institutional framework. As one of our main themes, we are giving it much consideration. At Rio+20 I envision that we might strengthen existing UN bodies, but the possibilities remain open.

There are several options under discussion. One is an umbrella structure involving the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). Another option supports enhancing UNEP or transforming UNEP into a specialized agency, along the lines of the World Health Organization or World Trade Organization.

There is also a proposal for enhancing institutional reforms and streamlining existing structures.

Whatever the outcome on this issue, we expect that strengthened governance will provide enabling conditions for more responsible, accountable action, at the international, regional and national levels.

Distinguished guests,

Let me conclude my talk by highlighting how you can contribute to a successful conference.

First, Leadership.

As you know, there is an official preparatory process underway. Along with Canada, the United States has a shared membership in the Bureau overseeing the Preparatory Process. I appreciate very much the contributions your representative on the Bureau has made.

But there are many other ways you can contribute to a successful Conference.

Over the years, the United States Government has made major contributions to the cause of sustainable development including in public health, sustainable agriculture, ICT, and entrepreneurship and public and private partnerships. We hope to see more US leadership in these and other critical areas.

Second, business engagement. US business has also made important contributions to sustainable development. American businesses create economic opportunities while being socially responsible. Not just in this country – but across the globe. We challenge the business community to do more.

Third, think globally, act locally. Local governments in the United States are major innovators in sustainable development. The United States is an excellent example of “trickle up” policymaking. States and cities are often in the lead on policy innovation, and on innovative financing for green investments. We challenge you to engage local governments in other countries.

Fourth, help those less fortunate. The US philanthropic community has made many valuable contributions to sustainable development from the green revolution, to work on tropical diseases, to the promotion of social empowerment. Many of the most generous and visionary philanthropic leaders come from the US. We call on them to contribute more to sustainable development.

Fifth, lead the research efforts. The US scientific and academic community has been vital to our understanding of earth systems. They have showed us how human beings and their activities depend upon, and in turn, influence those systems. We call on the US scientific and academic community to lead multi-disciplinary research in response to the emerging global challenges.

Six, be innovative thinkers. The NGO community and think tanks represented here have been indispensable in flagging emerging sustainable development challenges. You have provided policymakers with innovative solutions as well as creative tools. You have prodded governments into action. We ask you to continue this role and do more.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Before I close, I would like to leave you with a final request.

If you are convinced after today’s talk, that Rio+20 can be an historic event — that it really does have the potential to make a difference for the future of our planet — then please do not lose time in getting the word out.

I would like to end with a quote from another famous American, one from whom we can all take inspiration as we embark together on the road to Rio+20. President Kennedy said, almost a half century ago:

And I Quote: “… in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future.” End of quote. [Commencement Address at American University, Washington, D.C. June 10, 1963]

So, mobilize your networks. Contribute your best and most innovative ideas. Let us, together, make Rio+20 the start of a new future.

Thank you for your time and attention.