The Road to Rio

May 24, 2012 — Twenty years ago, representatives from 172 countries gathered at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero to discuss environmental challenges and produce a blueprint for sustainable development. On June 20, experts will once again meet in Rio with the stakes even higher — a population topping 7 billion and ever-growing evidence of climate change.

“I believe the United States has a record of taking strong action and creating an ‘America built to last,’” said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who will be at Rio+20, the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, next month. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”

Sutley spoke here May 23 at a program co-sponsored by the Georgetown Climate Center and the province of Quebec’s Washington bureau.

Professor Edith Brown Weiss, who introduced Sutley, was at the 1992 Earth Summit. While Brown Weiss cited a number of positive developments that flowed from that event, such as linking sustainable development with international trade and investment law, she also pointed out that climate change scenarios are worse now and “two billion people live on less than $2 a day. That’s something to reflect on the next time you go for an espresso or cappuccino.”

In the two panel discussions that followed — both moderated by Visiting Professor Vicki Arroyo, the Climate Center’s executive director — senior government officials from Illinois, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Quebec and Manitoba discussed their states’ and provinces’ efforts to promote sustainability through clean energy, emissions trading programs and innovations such as electric vehicles. Vivian Thomson, associate professor at the University of Virginia, outlined Germany and Brazil’s efforts to reduce emissions and promote renewable energy.

Alain Olivier, who directs the government of Quebec’s office in Washington, D.C., summed up the road to Rio this way: “Twenty years later,” he said, “it’s time for action.”

-- Anne Cassidy