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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Go sustainable, be responsible! European civil society on the road to Rio+20

Conference at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)

Brussels, 7 February 2012

Mr President,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It's a pleasure for me to be here today. I would like to thank the European Economic and Social Committee for providing this opportunity to reflect together on how we can make Rio+20 a success and on how civil society can help achieve that.

The main objective of the Rio+20 Conference is to give renewed political impetus to global sustainable development and the fight against poverty.

Good, even if uneven progress has been made towards sustainable growth across the planet in 20 years since the original Rio summit. Hundreds of millions have risen from poverty and some global environmental problems were solved while others are being addressed.

Yet many of the challenges, such as hunger in some parts of the world, or climate change, resource depletion and biodiversity loss across the globe, remain. In some countries internal social cohesion has decreased and internal differences in income levels became bigger than differences with other countries.

The global economic crisis has shown everybody how connected and how vulnerable we are.

There is of course also plenty of evidence that shows that our planet is facing major risks: The threat of climate change is already present in many of the poorest countries around the world; the loss of biodiversity is threatening the forests and grasslands on which up to 2 billion of the world's poorest citizens depend for their livelihood; our oceans are becoming more acidic, threatening coral reefs and fish resources; and pressure on our water resources is high and growing. These are just few examples that clearly show the inseparable links between our economic and ecological resilience.

With global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and resulting increase of the pressure on our planet and its natural resources the link between ecological and economic resilience will only grow. Prosperity for many has to be achieved without tipping us over into misery for all.

This is why we are calling for a world transition towards a green sustainable economy: an economy that takes into account environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainable development.

Moving towards a green economy worldwide is the only answer and it is possible. Europeans can already see the first fruits of our determination to pursue the low-carbon path, and now we have the opportunity to build on early success and experience. With the right mix of tools this transition can become a real economic opportunity and we have incorporated it, not abandoned in the response to the current economic crisis. Environment and economic policies need to start walking hand in hand. And this applies to all countries even to those that are at different stages of economic development than European countries.

Many other global actors also share the view of green growth as an opportunity to reach resource efficient low carbon future. It offers enormous investment and growth opportunities for countries on all levels of development.

If taken up as global action, potential for investment and gains are massive compared to official development assistance.

But at the same time the poorest countries need help to make this promise full. That is why the EU intends to fully meet our commitments to poorest countries and will meet the Millenium Develoment Goal of 0.7% by 2015. The EU Commission has just proposed a new external aid package to Member States in the 2014-2020 budget – proposals (with EU aid increasing by 17%) that reflects this ambition.

Rio+20 offers these countries a unique opportunity to take advantage of EU's refocusing of development aid priorities to the countries most in need and towards sustainable growth.

But for this transition to succeed globally, we will need to agree on a global vision and set common objectives to which all players will have to commit. This will not be simple, especially considering today's economic context.

The different positions and views expressed last week in New York - during the discussions on the draft proposal prepared by the UN for the Rio conference - give us already a flavour of the difficult, but I repeat – worthy – task ahead of us. It is true; there are a lot of different views out there on what should be the way forward. But it is also true that we have a common objective that, I can assure you, is in the interest of everybody.

The outcome of discussions on global economic transformation, whatever their outcome, will have an enormous impact on our future and that of future generations. This is why we have the duty and the responsibility to take a leading role. And we intend to do so.

The European Commission is investing a lot in the Rio process – President Barroso, Commissioner Piebalgs and myself, but also others are working very hard to ensure that we will obtain concrete results, and I can safely say that a day will not pass by in the coming months where the Rio outcome will not be discussed in our contacts with our international partners. We are also working closely and constructively with the Danish Presidency, because if the EU wants to succeed, it will need to speak with one voice.

Our main objectives are:

  • to establish a 'green economy roadmap', where we define a common vision, chart a clear path and set out the process and milestones we need to achieve; and

  • to ensure that international environment bodies have the profile and the tools required to take this process forward.

A 'green economy roadmap': Concrete commitments by the international community. A 'green economy roadmap': Transforming economic systems, accelerating the pace of change and lowering the cost of meeting environmental challenges on those cross-cutting and sectoral issues that can only be addressed effectively on a global scale, such as protecting the oceans beyond national jurisdiction.

Results will be obtained and challenges turned into opportunities faster if we act globally. This is the case for example when it comes to addressing sustainable consumption and production patterns, and in particular the inter-linkages between water, energy and food production.

Although we need to work together at global level, most of the implementation will have to be undoubtedly done at national and local levels. That is why one of the proposals we have made is to establish a capacity development scheme. This scheme – with inputs from the UN system, the International Financing Institutions, bilateral and multilateral donors and, very importantly, from the private sector – would provide tailor-made advice to all interested countries.

The EU is not speaking from a podium. It is itself already doing a lot and will do all it can to continue in the right direction. We have placed "moving to a resource efficient low carbon economy" at the core of our economic strategy, and as a way out of the current financial crisis, towards sustainable growth. When we look back to Durban, we can see that the example of global action on climate change that many of our partners share, is not only about the sense of environmental urgency to act, but it is also about the economic opportunities it offers.

Rio can offer the perfect opportunity to broaden and accelerate a worldwide transition in the same direction. We are increasingly recognizing the link between the use and sustainability of the natural resources we rely on, such as soil, energy and raw materials, and under how much pressure they are. A green economy that places resource efficiency at the heart of its policy can offer great growth opportunities.

We should define the milestones in key pressure areas that would apply across the globe. Some examples of strong candidates include: Sustainable energy for all, securing water access, sustainable oceans, food security, capturing the full potential of a circular economy.

Without concrete milestones we will go nowhere!

But for this to work, we will need adequate support. This is why the EU insists in ensuring that international environment bodies have the profile and the tools they need to help support and accompany the 'roadmap to a green economy'. This is why we are proposing to upgrade the United Nations' Environment Program (UNEP) into a UN Specialised Agency for the environment to be based in Nairobi. An important part of this process will be knowledge base to measure progress, solid cooperation to capture innovation potential, international scientific cooperation, just to mention a few. We are also very open to discussions on how this upgrade should improve the overall global governance on sustainable development.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Before concluding allow me to say a few words on where we stand in the run-up to Rio and on what you can do to make Rio a success.

As I already mentioned the UN has prepared an initial draft of conclusions for the Rio conference.

Of course, the draft is not perfect. A number of issues still need to be addressed, including the overall balance and consistency of the text. But, we need to start somewhere. Although at the discussions that took place in New York, many felt that the draft was not sufficiently ambitious and that it lacked precision, all delegations accepted the draft as a basis for negotiations.

What I consider to be a strong point of the current draft is that it recognises the importance for Member States to embrace a multi-stakeholder approach. This means that Member States should actively involve all players as partners and drivers of change, including the private sector and civil society.

This is an approach that was broadly endorsed in many of the statements made last week in New York. The real challenge now is to translate this into concrete ideas and actions that will go beyond Rio.

This is where you come in and where you can play a key role. Not only at local and national levels, but also at European and at international levels.

If you feel that your local authorities or governments are behind the curve, let them know. Feel free to speak up, share your ideas, and promote best practices and most importantly be innovative! If you have ideas and would like to turn them into actions, either within the EU or in third countries, like in developing countries, but you feel that the conditions are not right, let us know. If you are using methods that you think the rest of the community could benefit from, let us know. Share your ideas with us. Tell us how we can support you, what we can do to make things happen. And make sure that all governments, not just those that agree with you, can hear you too.

You are the frontrunners. We can define strategies, design roadmaps and adopt new legislation, but it is on the ground that this becomes a reality, and it is only on the ground that the weaknesses become visible. It is only through sincere commitment and through this kind of active participation that we can succeed in Rio and beyond Rio.

If I was asked to summarise the main message I would like to pass on in one paragraph, it would be this: The Rio+20 United Nation's conference gives a chance to the global community to rally behind the sustainability agenda in the form of the green economy. We expect a concrete agreement on taking forward a global approach with a set of measurable objectives limited in time and underpinned with concrete objectives based on a clearly defined set of measurable common obligations and governance system that can monitor the process.

This is an opportunity we should not miss. Of course I am determined to do all I can to ensure that we don't. I count on you to do the same!

We have four months, no more no less! We should not miss a single day till Rio!

Thank you for your attention.

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