Rio+20 environmental summit has great promise

Posted: June 21, 2012

We are two aging environmentalists with more than 80 years between us spent advocating for a cleaner planet and healthier economy. Even from our well-worn perch, what is taking place at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil this week has great potential.

The summit is the largest ever organized by the United Nations, expected to draw more than 50,000 people from 190 countries, including 130 world leaders. The last time the United Nations organized a conference of this magnitude was 20 years ago in Rio de Janeiro — thus the nickname Rio+20. Just as it did two decades ago, the United Nations is bringing together governments, institutions, and others to consider measures that will promote economic stability while restoring the delicate balance of the Earth's ecosystems.

The stakes are even higher today. We've seen the cumulative impact of overconsumption, overreliance on fossil fuels, and the push for growth at any cost. At the same time, we are facing growing wealth disparity and poverty across the globe. The world can either come together to support an ecologically sensible future or pull farther apart, threatening the well-being of our planet and generations to come.

Rio+20 offers an important opportunity for action. We should start by recognizing that saving our planet is not only essential; it is doable. We've found examples of countries that are excelling in critical areas:

Germany leads the world with more than 20 percent of its electricity supplied by renewable sources such as wind and solar. It is on a path to reach 100 percent renewable energy perhaps as soon as 2035.

Ecuador became the first country to include a Rights to Nature provision in its constitution in 2008, giving people the legal authority to enforce the right of ecosystems to "exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate."

And the Dominican Republic has striven since 2003 to increase its forest cover from 32 percent to nearly 40 percent.

Rio+20 also offers a unique opportunity to learn from past mistakes. Brazil, the host country, is fast becoming an example of what not to do as it follows other nations whose rise to economic prominence has been accompanied by increased degradation of the planet. It's poised to sacrifice the Amazon rain forest, the world's greatest, to the expansion of food and biofuel crops, along with massive dam-building. The result would be catastrophic weather disruption in Latin America.

In January, Brazil's new president, Dilma Rousseff, expedited plans for 20 major dams in the Amazon. The huge Belo Monte Dam will displace more than 20,000 indigenous people, inundate forests, ruin fisheries, and release massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Brazil has now graduated to second place as a destroyer of rivers, after China.

The summit offers Brazil's leaders a perfect opportunity to reverse course. Again, this is not an insurmountable task. The United States, once the world's greatest river destroyer, is now a global leader in restoring free-flowing rivers. Since 1970, more than 250 U.S. rivers have been put off limits to damming and diversion, and more than 1,000 dams have been removed. Taken together, such measures have the potential to spur action toward the creation of a global green economy.

The first Rio summit led to the Kyoto Protocol on limiting greenhouse gases, a measure that has not lived up to its initial promise. Let's not squander the opportunity this time to ensure that 20 years from now, our planet will be headed in the right direction, and Rio+20 will be a model of collective resolve.

Brent Blackwelder is the founding chairman of American Rivers. Randy Hayes is the founder of the Rainforest Action Network.

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