What the UNFCCC’s Christiana Figueres is Looking to Get Out of Rio+20

You have probably heard, by now, of Rio+20.  This is a major conference on sustainable development being hosted by the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro on the 20th anniversary of the historic “Earth Summit.”  There is a lot on the agenda.

I had the opportunity to speak with the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres about her expectations for Rio+20. Figueres is the top international diplomat in charge of herding member countries and others toward creating a post Kyoto international climate change protocol. The UNFCCC is not hosting this meeting, but does have a key stake in its outcome.  I was curious to learn how the Rio+20 summit might affect the ongoing struggle to create a global climate change regime.

For the past several years, we have grown accustomed to climate focused meetings, like Bali, Copenhagen, or Durban in which pressure groups and governments have urged very specific outcomes (e.g. the precise tonnes of carbon that should be reduced; temperature reduction targets; specific amounts of money devoted to specific projects; dates by which agreements must be ratified, etc).

Figueres stressed that Rio is not about the nuts and bolts. It is about the big picture:

“Rio is not a technical negotiation. Rio is about a bigger picture conversation about what kind of society to do we want…It is about asking ourselves: do we want to be a society that on the one hand wastes natural resources and on the other hand has not been capable of dealing with poverty, or do we want to have a society that is more responsible in the way it uses natural resources and at the same time can effectively address poverty and growth in developing countries?”

I think this is a useful frame for understanding the significance of Rio+20.  This meeting is all about agreeing on a set of ideals. It is not about the specifics. Rio+20 is all about finding common aspirations about the environment and development that every government on the planet can support.  Agreeing on ideals can be dismissed as fluffy, but it is still a monumental task considering that every government is included in the process of ideals-making.

UPDATE: Here is the full audio recording of the media roundtable, hosted by the UN Foundation.