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At Rio+20 environmental summit, is 'catastrophe' inevitable?

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Felipe Dana/AP

(Read caption) Sugarloaf mountain is silhouetted against the early morning skies as the sun begins to rise in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the host city for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, Monday, June 18, 2012. The Earth summit runs through June 22, with three final days of high-profile talks among some 130 top leaders from nations around the globe.

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So what happens if you hold a UN conference on sustainable development, and world leaders make speeches, and sign treaties, and then nothing happens?

This, of course, would be absurd. The problem, says Bill Easterly, a development expert at New York University, is that nothing has happened in the 20 years since the first Rio Earth Summit, in which all the world’s nations gathered and promised to address major environmental problems and then held more environmental summits, and then a few more.

As Mr. Easterly tweeted, “Delegates gather in Rio to commemorate 20 years of nothing happening since a UN Summit where nothing happened.”

The most charitable way to look at the past 20 years of environmental conferences is to see them as the beginning of a global conversation on the common threats of carbon emissions (also known as air pollution) and greater awareness of the dire consequences we all face if nations don’t get serious about developing in a cleaner and environmentally sustainable way.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, “too important to fail,” in an interview with the Guardian. "If we really do not take firm actions, we may be heading towards the end – the end of our future," Mr. Ban said.

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