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Quo Vadis, Terra? An Overview of the Rio+20 Follow-up Process

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"It's better than nothing," some said in a resigned tone about the Resolution 66/288 - The Future We Want, the main result from the Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. Others echoed a bleaker outlook, proclaiming that the past 20 years of large U.N. conferences had merely resulted in the pointless exercise of talking the talk without walking the walk ad infinitum.

Whatever sentiment you deem more appropriate, it may be too early for a final judgement call about Rio+20's impact. Nonetheless, over six months later, it raises the question: where are we today?

The Follow-Through: From Words to Actions

Politically, implementation is -- as expected -- slow. At Rio+20, the international community decided that one ought to establish an Open Working Group for Sustainable Development. The group's aim is to create a proposal for Sustainable Development Goals based on The Future We Want document by September 2013.

Even though the Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) has coordinated special events to facilitate the formation of this Open Working Group, the five U.N. Regional Groups have been unable to come to agreement upon the number of seats each member will hold. At a dialogue forum with representatives of Civil Society on November 26th in New York, U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremić expressed disappointment that the group has not yet been created, but declared that it must be formed to begin work in January 2013.

Reactions from the Front Lines

While the negotiations are continuing without much visible progress, members of civil society are becoming increasingly impatient. Christopher Stampar, who has been on the front lines of the Rio+20 follow-up process as a member of civil society and as Director of International Partnership Development with I.D.E.A.S. for US, relayed the following opinion to me after attending the UNEP Stakeholder Forum on Sustainable Development in October:

"After having attended several major U.N. conferences this year, we continue to discuss the same things over and over again. For issues like climate change, for instance, we aren't waiting on any major scientific breakthroughs to solve; we know what we need to do. The problem is simple. There is a fundamental lack of political will to actually tackle our biggest problems. We've had plenty of conversations of what we need to do as a global society, now we just need our governments to actually implement it."

So if we have the solutions and the climate crisis is unfolding, why aren't we moving faster? A senior economic advisor at the U.N. in New York explained it to me as follows:

"For those who observe the U.N. process from the outside, it appears slow and inefficient. But you are making this judgement based on the assumption that the world we operate in is one guided by desirability. Whatever you desire, can be achieved. The U.N. and politics at large, however, execute within the confines of the world of feasibility. So you can rarely achieve what is desirable, but you can fight for the best possible outcome, given certain feasibility constraints."

Since there is often only a small overlap between "feasible" and "desirable" outcomes, the U.N. can only move in small steps on a global level. But for you and me, as members of civil society, this is not where the story ends. Rather, it's where it begins.

Two Paths of Action

Each one of us is confronted with two choices to put our world on a path towards sustainable development. If you're passionate about global action within the "world of feasibility," consider getting involved with Civicus, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, working or volunteering for the U.N. or one of its many non-profit partners or writing to your country's U.N. representative to make the establishment of SDGs a priority.

Secondly, you may opt for local action with a focus on building the "world of desirability" in your community at home. Start with reducing your personal ecological footprint by focusing on those sources where humans have the biggest impact: energy use as well as water and food waste.

Lastly, consider volunteering for a local NGO that tackles environmental issues. Create your own awareness-raising initiative or support entrepreneurial ventures in the green innovation area.

These options form, of course, not an exhaustive list. Rather, they are but the beginning, a scratch on the surface. Whatever action we deem appropriate, we must never forget that the sustainability challenges we face today are man-made. Hence, we can undo them if we want to. And the key lies in this simple four letter word: 'want.'

Rio+20 and its follow-up process is first and foremost a matter of willingness. Willingness to take action on a global level. Willingness to take action on a local level. Willingness to stop being indifferent. After all, you could just close this tab and disengage. But as Jane Goodall, Edward Norton, and Richard Branson told me earlier this year, it would be unacceptable to let fear defeat hope. Enacting change starts with believing that humanity is fully capable of setting the world on a sustainable course within your lifetime. And ends with actively becoming part of the solution today.