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The United Nations (UN) summit Rio+20, to be held next week in Brazil, will be an opportunity to secure political and economic commitments for sustainable development and to address new and emerging challenges, says Carlos Nobre in an editorial published yesterday (14 June) in Science.

Twenty years after the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, also held in Rio de Janeiro, the Rio+20 meeting is framed by three major global changes.

The first one is the high degree of cultural, social, and economical interconnectedness among nations, unimaginable in 1992. This can confer stability, but also abrupt changes, as shown by the global financial crisis and recent food security issues. There is a need to consider how to minimize such systemic risks.

Another change has been the introduction of the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’, a term defining a new geological epoch where humanity has become a key driver of the Earth system, pushing it beyond several planetary boundaries, such as radioactive forcing and biodiversity loss.

The third change is geopolitical. Emerging economies such as Brazil, China, and India are growing into economic powerhouses that are critical to the future global sustainability agenda.The Anthropocene requires that nations reevaluate their relationship with the planet, and with each other, to ensure prosperity for current and future generations.

For example, if Brazil meets its voluntary targets on greenhouse gases, emissions will fall by 10 to 12 per cent by 2020 as compared with 2005.

Rio+20 could create momentum for a global transformation. There are several initiatives contributing to this goal.

Universal sustainable development goals should encompass social, economic, and environmental outcomes, and a Sustainable Development Council could promote progress on goals. Together with Future Earth, a 10-year international research programme focusing on global sustainability solutions, these initiatives can become the basis of a strong global innovation system, with the oversight of a new office of Chief Scientific Advisor to the UN Secretary General.

"Rio+20 should act as a catalyst for a sustainable development agenda that emphasizes holistic, equitable, and far-sighted approaches to decision-making", the editorial says.

“Urgently needed is courageous leadership that commits to a long-term vision for our planet and its people”.

Link to the editorial in Science

Carlos A. Nobre is a climate scientist and is the National Secretary for R&D Policy at the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation of Brazil.

This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20.