What's New for Rio +20?

04/03/2012 09:10 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2012
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

So what has changed for the world since first Earth Summit in Rio twenty years ago -- and what new challenges and opportunities will be on the table at the end of June when the UN again convenes its members?

Well, some things are pretty clear. Climate disruption is happening faster and with greater severity than the world thought when it first gathered in Rio -- and the faith in the ability of nations to take collective action to avoid long-term disaster has been badly shaken. The willingness of carbon producers to fight back against efforts to develop a low-carbon economy which would end our addiction to oil and coal was greatly underestimated, as was the danger that conservative forces would decide to make climate an ideological litmus test. The US, even under a President with strong multi-lateral instincts, is no longer willing to lead. And the rapid transformation of the global economy with the rise of the BRICS nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- resetting the power dynamics of climate diplomacy.

All pretty grim news -- and there aren't many optimists about big global climate deals being made in Rio at the end of June.

But after six days and three intense global conferences -- the Carbon War Room's Creating Climate Wealth, a MRFCJ Climate Justice Forum in New York, and the Skoll World Forum here -- there are some deeper trends that offer hope.

First, the clean energy economy is ready for primetime. Twenty years ago, the nations that pledged to curb their carbon emissions had a very meager tool chest to do so -- neither solar nor wind were yet economic winners, hybrid and electric cars were not even a glimmer on the horizon, incandescent light bulbs were pretty much the only option, buildings unavoidable leaked vast quantities of energy. Today, all that is changed. With coal and oil prices soaring, low carbon growth is, even if most of us don't realize it, already CHEAPER than trying to generate higher GDP using high carbon fuels. Zero net energy buildings are cheaper to build and operate than leaky ones. The marginal cost of coal fired power plants is higher than wind, and about equal to solar. As more and more clean energy is deployed, its price keeps coming down, increasing the economic argument for kicking the carbon habit.

So we can -- and should -- replace the "shared sacrifice" frame on climate security with a "competitive race to seize the future" frame.

Second, while the world almost gave up on climate diplomacy after Copenhagen, Durban actually created a new pathway. The agreement that instead of a climate treaty in which only some countries participated, we would seek one that fairly included everyone has taken away the strongest argument that big carbon and the right used to block collective action. (The key ads used by American carbon interests to prevent the US from signing on to Kyoto featured a jig-saw puzzle which pulled China, India and Brazil out and asking how fair a treaty it could be that didn't include most of the world.) The US, China and India may wish that the Durban principals had not been agreed to, but eventually went along - and now responsible climate voices in those countries have a platform that can be defended.

Third, there is some obvious and compelling confidence building measures on the table. The most exciting is UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's call for "Sustainable Energy for All" campaign." Here there are four imperatives:
1) The world in Rio should commit that everyone will have electricity and modern cooking fuels, the first by 2020, the second by 2030.
2) Most of us can obtain electricity by paying for the electrons as we use them -- I didn't get a bill for $50,000 for the power plants that serve my apartment in San Francisco. Neither should the poor. We should recognize that since solar power costs less than kerosene long term, we should finance the poor obtaining access to it. Money -- enough -- should be set aside and ring-fenced for distributed energy access for the poor.
3) Governments need to get rid of perverse policies that block energy access. In some countries, including most of the US, a business or family that generates a surplus of solar electricity can't sell it to its neighbors. Import duties double the cost of solar panels in many poor countries. Fossil fuel subsidies make renewable look more expensive than they are.
4) And social safety net programs -- efforts directly focused on alleviating extreme poverty -- should lead with making sure that the poor have access to clean energy, because without modern energy services, education, livelihoods and health are all locked into vulnerability. The myth of Abe Lincoln studying by candlelight might have worked in 1860, but as Secretary General Ban Ki Moon says, in the 21st it is the moment a family gets electricity that gives them the chance to climb out of poverty.

Energy access for all is a huge opportunity for joint collaboration that could put two billion people on the pathway to a renewable energy future, greatly shaking the monopoly that currently empowered coal and oil. But it's not the only one. Ecosystem restoration and regenerative agriculture is a pathway out of poverty, an essential step in feeding the world, and a major way of enhancing the carbon restoration capacity of soils, grasslands and forests -- it increases climate resilience by stabilizing water cycles and supplies -- and it makes tons of economic sense.

And finally, entrepreneurial energy is gathering around the low carbon economy. On distributed renewable energy access alone, dozens of new companies -- Simpa, SELCO, Eco-net Solar, Minda, Eight19, Stima, Frontier are only a few - and major players like Tata, the big Telcom companies, Shell are trying to figure out how to crack the Base of the Pyramid market. Auto companies are betting heavily on electrification. All of these private sector players are, effectively, betting that the world will take this challenge seriously and that finance, in particular, will be available.

Investing smart, and innovating rapidly, not sacrifice, is the key to climate progress. Rio probably won't be cheery, because diplomacy is locked in its old ways. But on the sidelines, there's a lot to cheer.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."