06/21/2012 04:12 EDT | Updated 08/21/2012 05:12 EDT

What Canada Must Achieve at Rio+20

When opportunity knocks, it's seldom standing alone on the doorstep. There's almost always a challenge -- or two -- right there beside it.

And so it is with the United Nations' Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development.

Any time there is an international conversation devoted to such complex issues as the balance between environmental and economic agendas, a tremendous opportunity exists. There is opportunity to align targets, to forge new alliances and agreements in principle. There is opportunity to share best practices on a range of urgent and rapidly evolving files.

And then there are the challenges.

It's easy to get caught up in the passionate rhetoric of self-righteousness and lose sight of the need for practical measures and achievable gains -- especially when there are so many divergent voices and agendas in the mix. But rigor and focus are all the more important -- and challenging -- at a time of profound economic uncertainty and constraint.

As it was 20 years ago at the time of the first Earth Summit in Rio, the world is struggling through a tough recession. That current economic reality makes it crucial to do more with less. And therein lies the opportunity -- and the challenge -- of Rio+20.

Going forward, there is ample scope to improve upon the efficiency of our collective efforts toward sustainable development, to better integrate those measures within the existing United Nations framework, to reduce duplication and to streamline existing mechanisms, structures and programs.

By being strategic and resourceful and setting clear parameters from the outset, we can accomplish a great deal without spending significant amounts of money on new initiatives. We must apply the discipline of sustainability to our approach as well as to our intended outcome.

To that end, Canada is committed to pursuing concrete results at Rio+20 that respect and reflect the unique circumstances of each country at the table -- as well as the priorities of their citizens.

That means taking into account a nation's geography, population, economy and climate. It's the best way to foster global aspirational targets that allow participants to determine their own optimal balance of economic growth, social and environmental protection.

It's also consistent with Canada's overall approach to pursuing a greener economy: to work hard -- and in consultation with stakeholders -- to develop a set of effective policy tools that can be pursued in an orderly way and integrated into a broad range of government actions.

Certainly Canada has successfully pursued sustainable development at home. Among many other accomplishments, we have more stringent regulation of chemicals, a clearly defined target and plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, an expanded Parks system, action plans to ensure cleaner air and water, and a plan for responsible development of our natural resources.

The results of that strategy are quantifiable.

The latest emissions report for Canada indicates that, despite continued economic growth, greenhouse gases have decreased by 6.5 per cent from 2005 levels. Our per capita emissions in 2010 were at their lowest levels since tracking began in 1990.

We are on track to establish final regulations that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the coal-fired electricity sector in the coming weeks.

We have also invested more than $10 billion in clean energy since 2006.

Our opportunity at Rio+20 is to find new approaches and partners to help us sustain that momentum, to build further on a sturdy foundation of principle and action. It is also our challenge.