RTCC Rio+20 Student Workshop: Setting a sustainable agenda

By John Parnell and Tierney Smith

Yesterday RTCC held a Rio+20 Student Workshop to pin down exactly what the summit should set out to achieve. While the results were not definitive, they were certainly telling.

Drawing on a group of ten students and five mentors from leading civil society organisations in development, climate change policy and green economics, we initially sought to produce a definitive list of ten goals for the conference.

What became apparent was that combining policies to address poverty eradication, economic and environmental sustainability and energy access, in a fair manner, all within the bounds of human rights laws, is no simple task.

Even this statement throws up more questions than it answers. Is poverty purely financial? What does sustainability mean? Is all energy “good energy”? Who’s definition of fair are we using?

Immediately the complexity of the task facing the real negotiators becomes clear and it is easy to understand how the initial draft document for the summit swelled from 60 to 240 pages once talks began.

Initially, we planned to develop our own Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a concept that the UN is pursuing, very much in the mould of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It soon became apparent that this a little ambitious for one afternoon!

Below is a set of proposed ambitions for the summit on sector by sector basis.

Have a look through our breakdown of Rio ambitions and let us know what you think. Leave us a comment below, leave a post on our Facebook page, tweet us @rtccnewswire or email [email protected].


Copenhagen, home to this vertical garden, and a frequent case study for a sustainable cities. (Source: Flickr/La Citta Vita)

Drawing parallels with action on climate change, the group proposed placing cities, municipalities and regions at the heart of any action agreed at the conference.

Action at this level has multiple benefits. Changes in the places people live are more tangible than national policies and targets. They can also be localised and implemented in a much shorter period of time.

There are 1.1bn more people living in cities now than there were during the first Rio Summit, and this growth shows no signs of abating.

Despite this, work on cities must not be done without a parallel track ensuring that rural communities are also catered for.

The role for the UN could be one as a hub for knowledge transfer and best practices between regions facing similar challenges. This could unleash the experience gained by its agencies, specifically those working on the ground in agriculture (FAO), desertification (UNCCD), biodiversity (UNCBD) and more broadly the UN Environment Programme. The UN would also be able to pool the vast experience of its network of NGO partners.

Green Economy

The Green economy can be a powerful tool to incentivise, fund and prolong change.

Rio+20 should examine the scale of the green economy beyond the east to see direct jobs in sectors such as renewable energy but other industry’s such as waste management, forest management and ecosystem restoration.

Even within these direct sectors, the jobs spread up and down the supply chain. A solar panel retailer may employ 20 installers, but there are also, administrative, accounting and marketing jobs created. The same company is also supporting the jobs of its supplier’s right through the supply chain to the extraction of the raw materials.

It is important that the scale of this potential and the related benefits in biodiversity, health and carbon cutting be well communicated to the public and policymakers alike.

Jobs also represent an opportunity to tackle issues on gender and youth involvement, one that should not be missed.


Micro-hydropower schemes like this one in Kenya, are a promising source of sustainable energy. (Source: Flickr/Practical Action)

A pet subject for the UN with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declaring 2012 the year of Sustainable Energy for All.

It is also an area where the complexity of the issues being faced at Rio+20 were clearest.

One goal for the conference was “Access to Energy for All”, and no one would disagree that this is a worthy ambition.

The goal was soon followed, however, by the sub-conditions of energy within the boundaries of the planet, acknowledging the potential negative impacts on the rights and wellbeing of people and the need to address the determental effects of unlimited growth.

Add to this the questions around what sustainable energy, equitable energy and equal energy would mean for the world and we have turned one clear goal into several, much less clearer pathways.

The workshop did come up with some concrete ideas on energy. For example, Rio+20 should establish a means to enable appropriate technologies are able to deliver energy for electricity, cooking and transport sustainably in different markets.

There is again an opportunity for the UN to act as a filter and distributor of information on successful projects and to match make civil society organisations with groups looking for help, be them local or national governments, community groups or utilities.

Developing new energy systems also opens the door to embrace new technologies. Smart grids in particular could play a huge role in securing energy supply in developing countries.


Just today, a new study has been published highlighting the damage that loss of biodiversity can do, arguing that it is potentially more influential than climate change.

The links between all of the topics on the table at Rio+20 are interlinked but biodiversity is arguably the most complex.

Protecting biodiversity feeds directly into food and water security, agriculture, energy access and ecosystem services. It can support local communities economically.

We are in the second year of the UN Decade of Biodiversity. Five goals have been set to mainstream the issue, reduce pressure on ecosystems and improve protection, enhance the benefits of ecosystems and to improve planning and participation.

These goals can act as further constraints to ensure that all actions generated in Rio and subsequently.

Biodiversity generates opportunities as well as challenges. Both require further attention.

Given that biodiversity is invariably linked to all discussions on sustainable development, there is an argument for it to be incorporated into all areas and of discussion, rather than treat it as its own issue with its own specific targets.

Food and water security

Projects like this market garden improve food security and provide extra income for communities. (Source: Flickr/Oxfam International)

The so-called perfect storm of rising population and climate change are putting intense pressure on global food security.

Protecting ecosystems can maximise agricultural output.

While much of the focus on food security will be on supply, consumption (particularly that of the developed and developing world) has received attention of late.

Key to the argument is the acceptance that food security is not about the lack of food but it is about the lack of access to food.

The solutions to this problem lie partly with technology and new approaches to agriculture. But a review of behavioural and consumption patterns and campaigns to raise public awareness on these issues are just as important, though frequently ignored.

Water security needs the same attention as it cannot be separated as an issue from food.

The wider argument about whether the SDGs should be universal or more regionally targeted is put into focus by issues around food. A target for the EU has no relevance in the Horn of Africa and vice versa.

While the workshop didn’t define a set of goals for Rio+20 it was able to open up the discussion and helped the students and us to fully understand the complexity of the issue facing negotiators.

Have a look through our breakdown of Rio ambitions and let us know what you think. Leave us a comment, leave a post on our Facebook page, tweet us @rtccnewswire or email [email protected].

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