The Rio+20 conference is an opportunity to tackle the sustainability issues that rapid population growth and urbanisation create, says Susanne Salz
Coming of age
The whole sustainability sector is preparing for the UN conference on sustainable development, also known as Rio+20, that will take place in Rio de Janeiro from 20 to 22 June. What is at stake and why should people active in the field of sustainable housing take an interest?
Rio+20 will take place 20 years after the 1992 Earth Summit, which was a key catalyst for global sustainable development efforts, such as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Two decades later, the challenges we face are even more severe: climate change is escalating, land degradation is ongoing, biodiversity is declining, rapid urbanisation is occurring and increased water scarcity looms on the horizon.
How does humanity want to live in the 21st century and beyond? What future do we want? We need the peoples of the world to consider this and we need global leaders to come to difficult agreements at Rio+20 to create the future we want.
Rio+20 has two main themes: the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development. These are overarching and deal with the key challenges of how to reconcile economic growth with sustainability, and how to organise global sustainable development efforts so the policies pursued are effective.
Coming from a local government association, I am particularly concerned with how urbanisation and sustainable city development are handled at Rio+20. During the next 40 years we have to build the same urban capacity that we have built over the past 4,000 to keep pace with population growth.
In 2008, around 3 billion people lived in cities and in 2050 it will be around 6 billion. This puts immense strain on how cities are built and how
they function, on their buildings, their infrastructure and their consumption patterns, which makes sustainable urbanisation a crucial question in
Embedded within sustainable urbanisation lies the issue of eco-friendly housing. Currently, buildings are responsible for 45 per cent of the greenhouse gases emitted through energy usage, 12 per cent of water usage, 65 per cent of waste production, and 71 per cent of electricity usage. They are therefore a big contributing factor to current problems and thus have to be taken into account in any future attempts to set the planet on a more sustainable course. Updated building regulations, smart systems design and local planning requirements are key factors in achieving green facilities that are self-sufficient, sustainable, carbon neutral, resilient and eco-friendly.
Moreover, consultants Oxford Economics estimate that the global construction market will grow by $4.8 trillion by 2020 with much of the growth taking place in cities. This shows that green urban infrastructure is not only a prerequisite for sustainability but is also of great economic value.
Already more than half of the global population lives in cities and that percentage will continue to increase. Providing sustainable urban housing is an important aspect of sustainable urbanisation. Rio+20 has the potential to be an historic milestone for global sustainable development, including sustainable urbanisation and housing. The world leaders face difficult choices, and to create the future we want we have to make our voices heard at Rio+20.
Susanne Salz heads up the ICLEI, the international association of local government organisations that have made a commitment to sustainable development