UN summits, flying, decisions, decisions, decisions: or, how we think we change the world.

27th April 2012 by

I’m on a bit of a 90s kick at the moment – dungarees, lots of plaid, long straggly hair, and Grandmaster Flash on the stereo.

And it’s not just me feeling nostalgic, even the United Nations (UN) is rewinding to the 90s! You might not remember (I was only nine), but in 1992 the UN held its first ever conference on environment and development, otherwise known as the Rio Earth Summit. Lots of things came out of this conference, including an agreement on the Climate Change Convention (which in turn led to the Kyoto Protocol), and an agreement to “not carry out any activities on the lands of indigenous peoples that would cause environmental degradation or that would be culturally inappropriate”.

In other words, it was at this conference that the world set standards for itself on how to develop in a sustainable way. Twenty years on we are, of course, struggling to meet these standards. Every day brings another headline about some environmental challenge or injustice that is happening somewhere in the world. The 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, where we had hoped to find solutions for many of these challenges, was widely accepted as a failure. It seems that we need another boost of inspiration, determination, optimism, and motivation to get things moving again in the right direction.

Cue the Rio Earth Summit that’s happening this June, 20 years after the original (also known as Rio+20)! At this conference, the UN aims to get Heads of State and other bigwigs together, to assess how progress is going towards internationally agreed commitments, and to secure further political commitments to sustainable development. They will also be negotiating on two main themes, which are… drumroll….

- Green Economy in the context of Poverty Eradication and Sustainable Development

- Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development

It’s not only bigwigs that will be there at this conference. Lots of representatives from ‘Civil Society’ will be there too, including NGOs, indigenous peoples, farmers, and an estimated 2000 young people! You can bet your bottom dollar that there will be a ton of lobbyists from business and industry too.

So, why am I telling you all this? Firstly, knowledge is power! And secondly, I will be one of the 2000 young people going to the conference! I’ll be running workshops for the youth there on building green jobs alliances, I’ll be following the negotiations, talking to our government’s negotiators, trying to get media coverage and blogging. I’ll be learning lots too and bringing lessons and stories back to the UK.

But, it takes a lot of carbon to get to Rio. Two tonnes, if you’re flying (which I am). Here at Otesha, we have a really clear travel policy which states that ‘All long-haul trips are made overland if possible. Flights are only taken as a last resort when no other transportation options are available and when the benefit of the trip is clear.’ Since travelling to Rio overland is super, super difficult (although you can read about our friend Lucy Gilliam, who is on an Edwardian sailboat to Rio as we speak – wow!), we had to make a consensus decision as a team about whether we thought this trip to Rio would be of clear benefit – to the people that I’d meet, to those who would read my blogs and learn about the summit’s progress, and to us as an organisation by bringing back learnings and contacts.

It was a really, really difficult conversation. We have a diverse set of beliefs here at Otesha, even if they are all rooted in the same principles. Like most people in this movement, we all differ slightly in what we think will create change, and how we should get there. Eventually, however, we decided that this was a pretty incredible and unique opportunity. It has been 20 years since the last summit, and who knows when the next one will be? Plus, when we co-coordinated the first ever UK youth delegation to the climate negotiations in Poland back in 2008, we created some pretty kick-ass youth campaigners and organisers as a result. I’m not sure if you can ever judge that one flight or another is more ‘worthwhile’, but we hope that being involved in this process will make a difference.

The exciting bit is, even though we don’t really believe in the concept of ‘carbon offsetting’ (see parody site Cheat Neutral for a good explanation of why) we are going to ‘spend a significant amount of time and money doing carbon-reducing activities’ (another bit of our travel policy). After lots of discussion and ideas, we’ve come up with a three-part plan.

Part 1: We are going to spend £50 on buying pollution permits from Sandbag, who take excess carbon credits out of the EU Emissions Trading System. We are also going to donate £50 to a community project through Global Giving.

Part 2: We are going to go out as a team and spend a day planting trees in our local community. We might buy a tree pack, or volunteer with Trees for Cities or BTCV.

Part 3: I’m going to do a 30-day vegan challenge before I go to Rio, and other staff members might join me! A vegan diet is a lot less carbon intensive, but I’ve never tried it before so I’m a little nervous. If I can go longer I will, I just wanted to set myself an achievable goal first!

I will be updating on how our three-part plan goes, and of course, this blog will be inundated with updates and learnings from Rio come June. So keep your eyes peeled, and vegan cookbooks at the ready!

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