This week, close to 50,000 people from the world of sustainable development are descending on Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

On Monday and Tuesday 18 and 19 June, hundreds of side events, breakfasts, workshops and dinners are taking place in the hotels and conference centres across Rio.

Experts, scientists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and business leaders are discussing the full spectrum of sustainable development issues and ideas, from energy to water, food security and green jobs.

From 20 to 22 June, government representatives will arrive in Rio in full force – more than 130 heads of state, ministers and special advisers will discuss the UN document “The Future We Want”, a global vision of how to achieve sustainable development for the coming decades.

Chairing this multi-governmental discussion will be the official hosts of the meeting, the Brazilian Minister of External Affairs, Antonio Patriota, and the Brazilian Minister of Environment, Izabella Texeira.

Much of the action will take place in the RioCentro, a large conference hall complex just outside Rio.

The Small Island States, the nations most threatened by rising sea levels, will be hoping to focus the conference’s attention on the legal, social and economic implications of their territories literally disappearing beneath the waves. For them, this is no mere talking shop; it is matter of life and death.

These discussions are about much more than climate change and other environmental pressures. We live in a world where 900 million people are hungry and malnourished; where close to 1.5 billion people lack access to clean water or electricity; where 60% of workers have no secure employment contract; and where 75% of humanity has no social protection at all. We need 200 million new jobs to be created today and half a billion new jobs over the next decade.

Sustainable development is about addressing these interlinked social, economic and environmental challenges.

The core theme of the Rio+20 Conference is “Greening the Economy in the Context of Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication”. But it will not be an easy task for governments to fill “The Future We Want” document with a bold, comprehensive vision of how we can do this in today’s economically straitened times.

As of 7 June, just 70 paragraphs out of 329 had been agreed. Earlier this week, negotiators from developing countries walked out of a meeting on financing for sustainable development. They propose a US$ 40 billion fund to help poorer nations make the move to greener economies. But industrialized nations, crippled by the current economic crisis, do not want to commit such a large amount.

Sunday night’s opening ceremony included the participation of Sha Zukang, Undersecretary-General, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), United Nations, who oversaw the original 1992 Earth Summit; Maurice Strong, previously Undersecretary-General and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations; and the ministerial co-chairs from Brazil.

Maurice Strong was downbeat, warning that he didn’t see much to celebrate, given that the environmental situation had actually deteriorated since 1992. Inequality has increased and many countries have failed to meet their obligations. “We know what to do, we just haven’t done it,” he said, earning a standing ovation from the participants in the room.

But even if politicians find it difficult to reach agreement, hope springs from the transformational collaborations being formed by NGOs, scientific networks, businesses, cities and civic organizations.

On Sunday, the Guardian newspaper’s sustainable business editor wrote from Rio:
“While the politicians are finding it difficult to find common ground, we are elsewhere witnessing the movement… to multi-dimensional collaborations. This is probably one of the most exciting developments we are likely to see coming out of Rio+20 and will offer the first tantalizing evidence of the ability to start taking projects to scale.”

Author: Dominic Waughray is a Senior Director and Head of Environmental Initiatives at the World Economic Forum

Pictured: A man walks past a banner at the entrance of the of the Brazil Pavilion for the Rio+20 United Nations sustainable development summit. REUTERS/Nacho Doce