U.N. Foundation's Wirth discusses challenges ahead of Rio+20 conference

As developed nations continue to struggle economically, how will financial tensions shape the United Nations' upcoming Rio+20 conference? During today's OnPoint, former Sen. Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, previews the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development and weighs in on the key issues that will be considered at the conference.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is former Senator Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation. Mr. Wirth, thanks for coming on the show.

Tim Wirth: Well, good to be here, thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: With the U.N. sustainability conference in Rio just two months away, participating countries are really gearing up for an important conversation on how to move the world towards a more sustainable future. All indications are that the secretary-general is really taking sustainability scenarios. It's a serious topic related to development for him. Are member countries though living up to the high goals that he's set out?

Tim Wirth: I think there are going to be 100 heads of state or so coming to Rio. Let's just back up for a second. You know, this is Rio+20. You'll remember 20 years ago, you probably don't, you're much too young, but 20 years ago the world came together in the most remarkable gathering of heads of state ever in the history of the world. And out of that came two or three major international agreements and the world for the first time really began focus on a series of sustainability and environmental issues. It's now 20 years later and Rio is going to, one, review where we've been with the major progress, for example, on forestry issues. That's probably been the biggest plus or major understanding of energy questions. And then beginning to chart a roadmap for the next 20 years. And that's where the secretary-general comes in, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general, has just been reelected to his second five-year term. Remarkably as a Korean coming out of the Korean foreign service, very hierarchical operation, he has taken the energy issue and the development issue and just really grabbed onto them and led as no other secretary-general really has. So, he's put his shoulder behind Rio and behind the development, particularly of commitments related to energy as your question suggested.

Monica Trauzzi: So, charting a roadmap for the next 20 years, what are the key initiatives that you think should be discussed and will be discussed at the meeting?

Tim Wirth: Well, the U.N. has sort of two obligations. One is a blue helmet obligation, that's the security side. The other side is the development side. How do we, all together in the world, help to bring 4 billion people into the mainstream, 2 billion of whom have no access to modern energy services? And so it is to the energy side that Rio is particularly committed. The secretary-general has put together a special initiative and that initiative is called the secretary-general's initiative on energy for all, sustainable energy for everybody who does not have access to energy by the year 2030 and that time will go by very, very quickly. And also too in that same period of time, double the rate of energy efficiency and double the rate of a penetration of renewables into our energy system. So very ambitious goals, that's what the U.N. does in the best way, is bringing countries together, developing a consensus, developing a sense of what the norms ought to be and the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is leading that fray and I think doing a very admirable job.

Monica Trauzzi: The U.N. has been criticized in recent years for being simply too large of forum to handle these types of discussions, in particular we saw this with the climate change discussions, the UNFCCC. So, do you think that this conference can really tackle these issues at such a, I don't know, such a large magnitude? With so many participating countries, can something actually happen?

Tim Wirth: Well, you have to break it down and do everybody at once, I mean you have to do both things. And the G-20, for example, major developed countries of the world have come together and put a focus on this, but they really are just a political shop with no follow-up capability. The U.N. is represented in all 193 countries around the world and the U.N. does have that follow-up. So, you get the political guidance from the major players, you get the consensus from all of the smaller countries and then, we hope, that that comes up with a soup that everybody can partake of and isn't something that is seen as just something for the rich guys or something that isn't seen just as something for the marginal people, but that everybody together can work on. The climate treaty you mentioned was a good example. You know, that was the first time, 1992, 20 years ago, anybody had ever tried anything like this to really understand this major issue. We're still struggling as a globe to figure out how do we reconcile the gap between rich countries and poor countries? You know, how do we really mainstream the idea of renewables and much more in terms of efficiency? How do we get rid of the resistance of the climate deniers and get rid of the great big companies who make a huge amount of money by not doing anything? All of those are roadblocks in the way of that particular issue. This energy issue I think is broader and is one that's going to be much easier for people to absorb. Everybody should have access to renewable energy and I think to renewable energy resources. Everybody should be thinking about greater efficiency. So I think that that's going to be a norm or a consensus that emerges out of Rio.

Monica Trauzzi: Like you said, the initial Rio meeting was really critical in jumpstarting the conversation on sustainability. How has the conversation on sustainability though shifted in the last 20 years since that first conference?

Tim Wirth: Well, it's everywhere, you know? I mean you can't see an ad from -- Chevron talks about sustainability. Exxon Mobil talks about sustainability. The Ford Motor Company talks about sustainability. Procter & Gamble talks about sustainability. It's part of everybody's vocabulary now, whereas 20 years ago people were saying what's that? And who is this person Gro Brundtland? You know, Dr. Brundtland was the Prime Minister of Norway and she was the person that was the primary author of the original Brundtland Report, which led into Rio and that was 20 years ago. Well, she is now, oh, 71 or 72 and I think she will be much celebrated in Rio as she has made an enormous sort of intellectual and economic contribution to the future of the world.

Monica Trauzzi: One of the big things affecting the expansion of sustainability is population growth. How concerned are you about how quickly things are growing?

Tim Wirth: Oh, it's the elephant in the room. I mean you're exactly right and it's something that still people don't want to talk about the way they should. You know, we now have a very rapidly growing population in parts of the world. Some people look at Europe for example or Russia and they're not growing or Japan, they're not growing, they're declining populations, so they say there's no problem. But if you look at Ethiopia or Pakistan, places like that, there we still have huge population growth and that, in turn, is going to turn out to be very destabilizing as you get, you know, tens of millions of young males who don't have anything to do and that's a very destabilizing influence. So, we're going to have to deal with that side of this equation too, but not at this conference in Rio. There will be a separate follow-on conference to the big Cairo population conference that occurred in 1994.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show, very interesting.

Tim Wirth: Well, you're great to do this, thank you very much.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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