Maurice Strong, Secretary General for the 1992 Earth Summit (and a former Foundation Board Member of the Forum) has been in Rio. His interventions have been one of the highlights of the Rio+20 conference. He is right to remind people of how the world has changed dramatically in the 20 years since the 1992 Earth Summit.

For example, there has been economic success. Today 26% of the world’s population makes up the global middle class, meaning extreme poverty has been halved from 43% to just 21% in 2010.

There has also been extraordinary progress in communications and technology, enabling societies to become connected in ways unimaginable in 1992. The number of online users grew by 740% from 1998 to 2008. One in nine people worldwide now has a Facebook account.

Large increases in migration have bought economic gains for developing countries. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of migrants worldwide rose by 38%, from about 155 million to 214 million people. The World Bank estimates that officially recorded remittance flows to developing countries now stand at about US$ 351 billion and are growing about 8% a year, compared to about US$ 100 billion a decade ago.

These economic successes are changing our social and political structures.

For example, each week, about 1.5 million people move to a city, almost all in developing economies. Today, about 3.5 billion people or, roughly 50% of all on Earth, experience an urban lifestyle – this is equivalent to the total world population of 1972 – the year of the first environment and development global conference in Stockholm.

The fastest growth since 1992 has been in the developing – now the emerging – world. Despite the global ramifications of the financial and economic crisis since 2007, the combined output of the emerging world accounted for 38% of world GDP (at market exchange rates) in 2010, twice its share in 1990. Emerging economies now account for over half of the global consumption of most commodities, world exports and inflows of foreign direct investment; 46% of world retail sales, 52% of all purchases of motor vehicles and 82% of mobile phone subscriptions. Almost one-quarter of the Fortune Global 500 firms comes from emerging markets; in 1995 it was only 4%.

With such a different world now compared to 1992, it is unsurprising that it is more difficult today for world leaders to agree on a common vision for sustainable development.

Many social dimensions of the Millennium Development Goals remain unmet. These include issues of hunger, nutrition, gender equality, child mortality, sanitation coverage and non-achievement of universal access to HIV/AIDS drugs.

The issue of employment is a pressing challenge. The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that 200 million people worldwide are unemployed. With 40 million people estimated to enter the labour force every year, the world will face a 600 million job challenge in the next decade.

Income inequality is becoming a key stress point. The World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2012 identifies severe income disparity as a top global risk. Low paid, informal jobs represent large portions of employment growth in emerging economies: 70% in sub-Saharan Africa, 50% in South-East Asia and the Pacific, and 25% in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Environmental resource management needs rethinking. Global agricultural production will need to increase 70-90% by 2030; energy demand will rise 40%; and water will see a 40% gap between global supply and demand. These resource challenges are interconnected. Increasing access to energy in a traditional energy value chain needs access to water. In many developing countries, up to 90% of all freshwater is already withdrawn for agriculture. How can the world square these seemingly impossible circles?

Climate change may also exacerbate things. Decentralized zero-water and “clean” energy sources (such as solar PV) may become a compelling energy access and climate change adaptation strategy for many countries. Unfortunately, obtaining investment is difficult. Basel III, designed to regulate the financial sector more stringently, makes it challenging for banks to invest in new green finance models. Can “green investment” exemptions be found in Basel III?

For all these reasons, and many more, life is arguably more difficult for negotiators in Rio today than 20 years ago. And yet, Maurice Strong is right. We need a transformation in the debate to help us meet these pressing challenges. There can be no more celebrations about the Earth Summit of 1992 if Rio+20 fails to be a launch pad for mobilizing practical ways of getting things done at scale.

Pictured: Brittany Trilford, 17, a student from Wellington, New Zealand, speaks at the opening of the Rio+20 United Nations sustainable development summit. She had not been born when the 1992 Earth Summit took place. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

Author: Dominic Waughray is a Senior Director and Head of Environmental Initiatives at the World Economic Forum