Six months after the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, which ended without major binding commitments by participating countries, progress on the issue is far from visible.
But Potočnik remains optimistic.
"I was of course in Rio this year and I know that many people left disappointed," Potočnik told the Brussels Sustainable Development Summit on Tuesday (December 18).
"To be frank, I can understand why. But I also saw hope and determination to succeed and the more time goes by, the more we understand the potential of the agreement we reached," Potočnik told the conference.
"I still believe that ensuring a sustainable future for all is possible. Eliminating poverty within a generation is within reach," the Slovenian commissioner stated.
Marie-Hélène Aubert, advisor for international negotiations on climate and environment to French President François Hollande, said developing countries are angry because so many promises have not been fulfilled.
"Now they want to see the implementation of what we decided 20 years ago, but they don’t see any progress. There have been no major change in the policies globally," Aubert said.
"Everyone was of course disappointed by the Rio+20 declaration, except those countries that don’t want any binding commitments like the US, but they are not alone," she added.
Ongoing discussions with member states
Potočnik said two of the most pressing challenges facing the world within the next generation are eliminating poverty and ensuring that progress is sustainable.
More than one billion people are still living in extreme poverty, especially in Africa, UN figures show. Access to food and energy is not secure with hunger actually increasing in some parts of the world. At the same time natural resources like water are under stress.
The environment commissioner said that the EU's executive body is working on the inputs to discuss with member states how the European Union should best contribute to a successful follow-up of the agreements made at the Rio+20 summit; and how the EU should contribute to international consensus on the overall framework.
The Commission hopes the results of this work can be made public over the next year.
"Given the current global mega trends, I would certainly expect that others would help us address the massive challenge of food security in the world of nine billion people," Potočnik said.
'US should do like the EU'
Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, also recognised that the US has fallen behind the EU when it comes to development policies.
"What you are doing in the European Union is so much more advanced than what we are doing in the US. I’m sure that’s obvious to you and it’s increasingly obvious to many people in the US when they see the effort you are putting behind sustainable development. This seems to be missing from my culture unfortunately in these difficult days," Rogers said.
The Earth Day Network president said the EU has shown an "incredible responsibility" towards the rest of the world.
"In the US, we often speak about these issues, but we often speak at the same moment about how they relate to our own self-interests and that is something that we must cure both as a country, really to look beyond our own political self-interest to make any of this work," she said.
Rogers was backed by fellow American Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals.
"The problem in the United States overwhelmingly is the power of the oil industry," Sachs said via a Skype connection from New York.
"This is mainly a political barrier above everything else. Our politics are corrupted. The oil lobby is the single most powerful lobby in the United States. It pays for a lot of the political campaign contributions of the Congress. The politicians are frightened a bit and we get inaction," the UN advisor stated.
Sachs said a good answer to the problems in the US includes mass mobilisation of solar and wind power, but this has never been explained to the American people until now.
"The White House has not provided leadership and he Congress is to a certain extent a bought institution. These are practical problems," he said.
The money is there
Another reason why the US can't keep up with the EU on development policies is that many environmental groups have board members from major corporations, Rogers said.
In the US, NGOs have also spent $1 billion in Washington trying to pass climate change legislation and failed.
"And we fail for one reason - how can we build a new society if we don’t start with finance? The global economic crisis is an excuse for governments to do nothing," the Earth Day Network's president said.
Instead individuals now have to take things up where the government has failed, Rogers mentioned, praising former President Bill Clinton who through his Clinton Global Initiative has collected billions of dollars and commitments from corporations.
According to Rogers, none of them will affect these corporations’ bottom line.
"None of us can say less about people like billionaire Bill Gates who decided on his own to try to go and stamp out malaria and polio. Those are the kinds of people that are stepping forward. In the absence of global leadership we see these actions by individuals," Rogers said.