A delegation of seven professors, students, and fellows represented the University of Massachusetts Boston last month at Rio+20, a global sustainability conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that drew an estimated 50,000 people, including leaders from 130 nations.
Members of the UMass Boston group conducted a research study, presented a proposal for sustainability initiatives on campus, and attended the conference centerpiece – a meeting of heads of state and non-governmental organizations from across the globe.
Access to the political meeting is limited, but UMass Boston was there because of the efforts of the Center for Governance and Sustainability. Natalia Escobar-Pemberthy, a research associate at the center and an incoming doctoral candidate in the new Global Governance and Human Security program, worked to have UMass Boston granted consultative status with the United Nations, a designation that gave the group a ticket into the meeting.
The consultative status also gives UMass Boston the right to attend future meetings of the UN. Earning that designation required months of research, reams of paperwork, and a compelling argument about how UMass Boston’s activities are relevant to UN functions.
“This was a really major process we had to go through,” said Maria Ivanova, co-director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability and an assistant professor in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance in McCormack Graduate School. “You can’t just pack up and go to a UN meeting.”
The UMass Boston group also organized one of the thousands of conference side events – workshops and presentations on hot topics in the sustainability community. The university group co-hosted the event through a partnership with Yale University and the Brazilian university Fundaçaõ Getulio Vargas.
The workshop featured proposals from 13 universities in nine countries on how campuses can mitigate the effects of climate change. UMass Boston’s group offered a strategy to provide power to the McCormack Building using energy produced by exercise equipment in the university’s fitness center. Students Vijay Kesavan, Kristin L. Osborne, and Hayley Schiebel, doctoral candidates in the Environment, Earth, and Ocean Sciences Department, presented the proposal.
"The workshop was a great forum to connect with like-minded students tackling sustainability challenges in innovative and unique ways,” Kesavan said. The group received funding from a variety of sources at the university.
Ivanova and Escobar-Pemberthy used the gathering of experts to conduct an on-site research study designed to develop a vision for an anchor institution for the global environment.
“It was the best opportunity to be able to get a very interesting sample on these issues,” Escobar-Pemberthy said. The data will be used in Ivanova’s forthcoming book.
Critics of Rio+20 have said world leaders accomplished little at the conference, choosing instead to restate old priorities. Ivanova said there’s some truth to those complaints.
“A lot of the governments felt that, yes, they had to be there,” she said. “There’s not enough creativity and goodwill as a global community at the governmental level to come together.”
But the political gridlock stood in “very sharp contrast” to the mood in the non-state sustainability community.
“The kind of inspiration that these people had of making a difference was really just tremendous. It was overwhelming. And all of them coming together, they could tap into each other’s energy,” Ivanova said.
Ivanova says universities will pay a huge role in creating the substantial changes that have been elusive so far.
“There’s a new role for universities, and I really see UMass Boston as a pivotal player in that environment,” she said.
Though Rio+20 didn’t produce the sweeping declarations favored by some, it did strengthen a network of experts who will be responsible for creating a greener future.
“I ended up meeting many people from different organizations that were there for the right reasons, and trying to do something at the local level that is very inspiring,” Escobar-Pemberthy said.