Nearly two decades ago, I helped advise China on a blueprint for national sustainability in the 21st century.  The blueprint – known as Agenda 21 – was prepared jointly by more than fifty different government agencies, state-owned enterprises and other organizations, led by the then-State Planning Commission and State Science and Technology Commission.  Following the first-ever Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, China was the first country to publish such a document –– and it has fundamentally changed how China views its environment.

Next year, governments, civil society and the business community will converge once more on Rio to orchestrate solutions for prospering economically while preserving the balanced environment upon which economies and societies depend. Earth Summit 2012 has the potential to move beyond previous meetings and inspire action rather than far-away promises. It can fundamentally change the discussion from “who acts first” to “what can we all do” now to meet the mounting challenges of unsustainable development.

These challenges – 30 percent of animal species threatened with extinction, 75 percent of the world’s fish stocks identified as over-exploited, and growing greenhouse gas emissions to name a few – are some of the greatest our countries have ever faced.

Unfortunately, while environmental summits have yielded over five hundred agreements and treaties, global progress on implementation has been lacking, and accountability to these myriad documents unfulfilled.

Unsurprising to me, as an observer over two decades of the changes industrialization and urbanization has brought here, China has proactively joined other nations in responding to environmental degradation, instituting laws to protect its water, air and land, and drafting a climate change law that aims to bring under control its rising carbon footprint. The recently approved 12th Five-Year Plan speaks volumes on the urgency that Chinese leaders feel.

Yet, as I pointed out in a recent China Daily op-ed, more needs to be done. If China cannot broaden economic indicators to include the health of the environment as Premier Wen Jiabao called for in March, China will be unable to respond quickly enough to these threats. And if China acts while the rest of the world does not, the global environment will continue to deteriorate, threatening China even more.

The solution – as pointed out by the presidents of Brazil and the U.S. and the head of the United Nations Environment Program – lies in the Race to Rio. Over the coming months, civil society will be showing a way to achieve measurable, high-impact objectives in Rio, starting with a draft list of deliverables we would like to see governments commit to. Kelly Rigg of the Global Campaign for Climate Action has already called on the public, businesses and governments to rise to the challenge.  As NRDC’s President Frances Beinecke blogged:

Instead of making pledges or agreeing to statements, [we] should join with others in implementing new or reinvigorated initiatives to tackle problems where it really matters – at the national level and below.  Promises for others to take action won’t do at this Earth Summit.  Everyone must look in the mirror and commit to steps that they’ll take to deal with these challenges.  

I would like to see China become a leader on the path to Rio, and also come willing to learn. There is much experience that China could impart to developing and developed countries alike, and still many gaps where it can benefit from cooperation. A good first step would be to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the plans for implementing the ambitious targets set out for 2015 in the 12th Five-Year Plan. This could provide a basis for the coming year of government and civil society preparation.

Ultimately, all countries must come to Rio prepared to deliver.

This blog was coauthored with NRDC China Climate Fellow Michael Davidson.

Photo by High Contrast.