Rio+20: What Does It Mean for Climate Change and Renewable Energy?

June 20, 2012 | 11:55 am
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Twenty years ago, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was one of the major outcomes of the original Rio Earth Summit. It has since been ratified by 195 countries, including the United States. Now world leaders gather once again in Rio de Janeiro at the Rio+20 Summit. The fundamental issue hasn’t changed. The solutions remain clear as ever. And they are even more urgently needed.

rio + 20 summit

This is part of a series of posts about the Rio +20 Summit.

The Framework Convention’s main goal was (and is) to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system.” Here’s the latest on the potential implications of Rio+20 for climate change and renewable energy.

Fast Forward to Rio+20

The Rio+20 conference has two official themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development. These themes cross over into multiples areas as varied as food security and sustainable agriculture, the oceans, water, reducing disaster risk and building resilience and trade and the green economy, to name a few.

For this blogpost, I’m going to focus on some of the energy- and climate-related issues on the table at Rio.

Youthblast–the conference of youth for Rio+20; Credit:

Sustainable Energy for All

In advance of the Summit, the UN launched an ambitious program called Sustainable Energy for All to help address the energy gap in many developing countries. Globally, 1.3 billion people—one in five— do not have electricity, and nearly 40 percent of the world’s population currently rely on very polluting, unhealthy fuels like wood, coal, charcoal, or animal waste for their energy needs. (These traditional fuels are very polluting, causing lung diseases and killing nearly two million people a year, most of them women and children.)

The initiative seeks, by 2030, to ensure universal access to electricity, double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and double the share of renewables in the global energy mix. But to be successful, it will need funding from the world’s richer economies and it’s not clear that it will be forthcoming. Some climate justice groups have also criticized the initiative for being too influenced by fossil fuel interests.

The Renewable Energy Challenge

Here in America we are lucky to have more than enough energy for all our needs, basic and luxury. But our use of energy derived from fossil fuels is unsustainable, leading to numerous health and environmental problems including the risks of climate change. We too face an energy access problem: increased access to renewable energy and energy efficiency on a scale that would reduce our global warming emissions to near zero levels by mid-century.

The tremendous growth in renewable energy deployment in the U.S and globally is a reason to be optimistic about our transition to a low-carbon economy. But it’s not happening as quickly or on as large a scale as needed from a climate perspective. Worse still, there is a genuine danger that the global shale gas boom could crowd out renewables and efficiency and lock us into a temperature increase of 3.5°C (6°F) or more.

We’re clearly at a crossroads: On one hand the incredible opportunities renewable energy affords. On the other hand the vigorous last stand by the fossil fuel industry to protect its interests and keep us tied to an outdated dirty energy system. If we had the luxury of time, I have no doubt which path would eventually win out. But with global warming emissions at record highs and the very real threat of crossing the 2°C threshold, we have no time to waste.

What Can we Expect from Rio+20?

Echoing my colleagues, Doug Boucher, Alden Meyer and Calen May-Tobin, I have to say I am not terribly optimistic about concrete outcomes from the Rio+20 Summit. The latest news reports about a weak and watered-down negotiating text do not give one much hope either. Nevertheless, I do think that the conference has given fresh visibility to issues of global importance, including climate change and energy. And it is inspiring and energizing to see the engagement of youth at the conference, sharing their vision of the future they want (and deserve!).

Here are a few issues that I hope will get some traction, with perhaps even some modest steps forward:

  • Elimination of fossil fuel subsidies that aren’t specifically targeted at improving energy access and affordability for the poor (see a news report of a Twitterstorm protest on this issue organized by climate campaigners)
  • Additional financial and technical support for clean energy deployment (including off-grid solutions) globally, whether it’s through the Sustainable Energy for All initiative or some other means.
  • Increased transparency around corporate sustainability risks including carbon risk disclosure

In a recent column on Rio+20, the late Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom said: Without action, we risk catastrophic and perhaps irreversible changes to our life-support system… Our primary goal must be to take planetary responsibility for this risk, rather than placing in jeopardy the welfare of future generations.

Here’s hoping leaders attending the Rio+20 Summit take that responsibility seriously.

Posted in: Climate Change, Energy

Tags: Rio+20

About the author

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Rachel Cleetus is the policy director with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She leads the program’s efforts in designing effective and equitable policies to address climate change, and advocating for their implementation.