Rio+20: Ecology and Economy in Focus

Commentary | June 21, 2012

Disparate forces are inevitably colliding this week as world leaders meet in Rio de Janeiro to take part in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development

Disparate forces are inevitably colliding this week as world leaders meet in Rio de Janeiro to take part in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. The goal of the conference is to bring together participants from around the globe to discuss how to improve worldwide coordination of policies that foster sustainable development and alleviate poverty.

One of the ideological battles taking place in Brazil, and around the world, is how to reconcile the immediate demand for energy with the longer term needs for sustainability. Two of the most visible opponents in this conflict are Greenpeace and Shell Oil.

At the Earth Summit in Rio, Greenpeace unveiled a campaign for a UN resolution that would curb Arctic oil exploration. What has recently raised the ire of Greenpeace is Shell’s plan to commence petroleum exploration in the Arctic region as the thawing ice cap opens up previously inaccessible areas.

Shell, for its part, says that the Arctic may hold the equivalent of 400 billion barrels of oil and that exploration of the area is vital to securing petroleum resources needed to meet rising global energy demands.

The Rio Earth Summit has been convened in hopes of finding sustainable solutions to problems like this. The relationship between economic and environmental interests is also a major focus area of the EastWest Institute. EWI’s economic security initiative is dedicated to securing a better global future through private-public partnerships that develop consensus and cooperation on issues ranging from protecting the digital economy to devising new strategies to deal with water, food and energy scarcity. Recent and upcoming efforts include the Affordable World Security Conference in March, 2012, and the 9th Annual Worldwide Security Conference to be held November, 2012 in Brussels.

The Rio+20 conference follows in the footsteps of 1992 Earth Summit, which also met in Brazil. Like the current conference, the air was  to rethink the current path of economic growth in light of future dilemmas facing the environment and social development. Among the issues that were discussed: Increased desertification, threats to the oceans, deterioration of infrastructure and limited access to fuel, food and water.

In tandem with Rio+20, a group of mayors from 58 of the world’s megacities also met in Rio de Janeiro to tackle climate change. This gathering, dubbed Rio+C40, presented innovative methods to deal with fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions, sources of alternative energy, landfill and infrastructure maintenance and more efficient transportation programs.

Coinciding with these two meetings was another gathering to the north: the G20 Leaders Summit. The leaders the world’s most developed economies met in Los Cabos, Mexico to discuss the international financial system. They focused on the global economy, specifically Europe’s current crisis. While the G20 and the global financial system captured far more immediate public attention, the Rio Earth Summit raised issues that are critical to long-term sustainability.

For its part, EWI is intent on continuing to spur new efforts to reconcile current needs, growth and sustainability. We do not feel that these goals are contradictory. As Shell points out, there is growing demand for energy. But, as Greenpeace noted, there is also an urgent need for new climate initiatives. Beyond the Rio+20 summit, all of the key players will need to work towards overcoming their current differences to promote economic development that is both sustainable and productive.