Before the Rio+20 summit had reached its conclusion in late June, environmentalists were already arguing that diplomats had agreed to a weak draft. The more than 190 diplomats assembled for Rio+20, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, had failed to define “sustainable development goals,” according to reports.
But that’s been true for nearly 20 years. The first Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, outlined 27 lofty principles regarding global environmental stewardship—but no concrete steps to take to get there. Two big pushes since to implement an environmental-protection paradigm with teeth have failed: first, the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997, but without the participation of the United States, then the worst energy offender in the world (today, China consumes more energy); and second, the Copenhagen Accord, a nonbinding agreement that passed in 2009 to almost no consequence.
The planet can’t afford to wait another 20 years for world leaders to take steps toward sustainability. Fortunately, architects and builders and their constituent regulatory bodies can succeed where the global regime has failed: by curbing emissions through national and international standards. Much of the world’s fossil-fuel consumption is linked to buildings, and by promoting market transparency and regulatory efficiency standards, states and firms can not only curb emissions—they can save a billion or two.