Rio+20: Challenging Opportunity for Change

UN Photo | JC McIlwaineBy Ernest Corea*
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON (IDN) – Mega commitments or mega carnival? That about sums up core options before the high-level delegates including heads of state and government who are due to meet in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 20-22 for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

The conference takes place twenty years after the international community’s previous attempt, also in Rio, to grapple with the demands of sustainability.

The conference, also known as Rio+20, will be held against a background of growing concerns that attention has been deflected away from the looming threats to sustainability.

The main goals of Rio+20 are: to secure renewed political commitment to the policy and practices of sustainable development, determine what tasks remain to be completed on the sustainability front, and plan for confronting new and emerging challenges.

Much of the world is preoccupied with questions of regional security, financial instability, job losses, and social and political upheaval. Profligate use of non-renewable resources continues.

Neglect, however, cannot be on the agenda. For, as Maurice Strong who pioneered and helped to develop a global environmental movement says: "Rio+20 will require a degree of cooperation beyond anything we have yet experienced at a time when competition and conflict over scare resources is escalating."

Long and Difficult Journey

Rio+20 is the most recent milestone on a journey that began forty years ago in Stockholm where the UN Conference on the Human Environment was held. The notions of environmental protection, and accountability, were little known, and sometimes dismissed as quaint preoccupations of a well-meaning handful of concerned experts and environmental enthusiasts.

So little was known and understood about what was at stake that prior to the Stockholm conference Strong, who organized the event and was its Executive Secretary, sent credible emissaries around to a number of capitals where they explained the issues to a range of policy makers as well as media representatives.. One of them recalls how an interlocutor, the Managing Editor of a flourishing newspaper, watched glassy-eyed as the conversation unfolded.

Critics and sceptics were initially less than enthusiastic about what was being attempted. At the end of the conference, however, Strong could honestly say:

"When this conference convened two weeks ago, the tasks before it seemed almost impossible of achievement. But it has faced up to the challenge – much of it controversial, all of it difficult, none of it with precedent for guidance – with a determination to find solutions.

The result is that it has dealt with all issues on its agenda – and it has dealt with them urgently, imaginatively and – above all – constructively.

Even in areas where agreements are lacking – and I must emphasize that these are few indeed – a major contribution has been made. For questions have been clarified, and a procedure has been started that, I am convinced, will ultimately lead to the agreement we seek.

But if we have reason for satisfaction – we have none for over-confidence.

We have taken the first steps on a new journey of hope for the future of mankind. But the journey before us is long and difficult, and we have barely begun it."

Concept Defined

Subsequently, at another milestone, the work of the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway at the time, provided the international community with a definition of sustainable development.

In its report titled Our Common Future, the commission said: "Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future."

The commission also said: "The concept of sustainable development provides a framework for the integration of environment policies and development strategies – the term ‘development’ being used here in its broadest sense…..The integration of environment and development is required in all countries, rich and poor. The pursuit of sustainable development requires change in the domestic and international policies of every nation."

The definition has been adopted by the international community, and remains unchanged. The ideas and practical proposals which underpin that definition have not, however, been universally acknowledged.

So, the journey continues.

Defining 'green economy'

In reaching out towards its goals, Rio+20 will focus on, first, a "green economy" and, second, the most appropriate institutional framework for ensuring that commitments made in Rio are carried forward. Focus on the much talked about green economy will include an attempt to define clearly its scope and essential characteristics.

The definition will need to be broad enough to encompass the core views of all those whose efforts are required to meet the goals outlined in Rio, and also narrowed down to set out a compendium of reachable and measurable results. A definition that excludes continuing efforts to combat poverty and its outcome, hunger, will make it a non-starter.

The deadlock in negotiations for agreement on the proposed "outcome document" of Rio+20, titled The Future We Want, has already caused some doubts about the effectiveness of the mega-event. Critical observers are beset by anxieties that the conference will turn out to be more sound than substance – in other words, another conference carnival.

Negotiations on The Future We Want draft have continued in Rio itself, with the expectation that agreement can and can be reached before the sound of the opening gavel is heard.

Many draft declarations have been hammered out in a similarly long drawn-out and sometimes tortuous, process. Late night sessions have become so much a part of the international conference scene that an Asian foreign minister once described them as "a good training in insomnia."

The critical issue, in fact, is not whether Rio+20 will adopt a declaration – surely, it will – but what the document ought to and does contain. Will it be hopelessly watered down in an attempt to give everybody a little bit of satisfaction or will contending viewpoints be reshaped and distilled into a well-focused instrument of progress? That is what all those who ardently wish for a successful outcome of Rio+20 await with both hope and trepidation.

Current Trends

The areas in which action is required have been spelled out in a recently published report from the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

GEO-5, the fifth annual edition of the Global Environment Outlook warns that the world continues to speed down an unsustainable path. Even the adoption by the international community of 500 goals that have been internationally recognized as the means by which "to support the sustainable management of the environment and improve human well-being" has not given sustainability the required impetus.

"If humanity does not urgently change its ways, several critical thresholds may be exceeded, beyond  which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet could occur. " says the report..

This grim alert is based in part on a detailed examination of 90 especially important goals. Significant progress has been made only in a minuscule four. Further deterioration was noted in eight goals including the state of the world’s coral reefs.

The four areas of success are:

--Eliminating the production and use of substances that deplete the ozone layer,

--Removing lead from fuel,

--Increasing access to improved water supplies, and

--Boosting research to reduce pollution of the marine environment.

Also on the positive side (more or less), "some progress" was made towards reaching 40 goals including more protection of national parks and reduced deforestation. However, on the negative side, little or no progress was noted for 24 goals including climate change, fish stocks, desertification and drought. Lack of data ruled out an assessment of progress or a lack of it for 14 goals.

"If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail and cannot be reversed and decoupled then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation," says UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

Consider This

Despite broad agreement on the dangers ahead, and verbal commitments to change and adjustment, and notwithstanding agreement reached at the previous Earth Summit on Agenda 21 – a road map towards progress – the international community has continued waywardly on its way.

Many of the disappointments and setbacks experienced have been caused by that old friend of so many – NIMBY (not in my backyard). There is broad agreement on the need to protect and nurture the fragile environment on this planet that we all call home. The need for change frequently gets the equivalent of "two hearty cheers." Where's the traditional third? That's set aside for somebody else who will lead the way or, better still, do it all, somewhere else.

The global north does not want to undevelop its profligate use of resources if that means a change of existing lifestyles, which cause the profligacy.  The global south is quite willing to change its lifestyles – taking the path that the global north has taken and has helped to lead us to the point at which the UNEP chief is impelled to utter a dire warning.

Many are hopeful that commitments will be made at Rio that can and will be fulfilled. Agreement on principles is important, so is the adoption of practical proposals for measurable progress. So, too, is the need for funding, whether pledges are made in Rio or subsequently and actually kept. Sustainable development cannot be nurture by agreement on "the size of the zero."

Nobody expects Rio+20 to produce all the answers, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in an interview with the Guardian of London, but it was crucial the leaders at least agree on the bare bones of a plan. "If we really do not take firm actions, we may be heading towards the end – the end of our future," he warned.

Former Commonwealth Secretary General Sonny Ramphal would remind audiences and readers that we have but "one world to share." If we don't share that world responsibly, wisely, and equitably, we might have very little of it left to share at all. [IDN-InDepthNews – June 17, 2012]

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

Ernest Corea's previous IDN articles:

Copyright © 2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Picture: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with journalists

Credit: UN Photo | JC McIlwaine

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