At the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, which ends tomorrow, more than 50,000 participants from civil societies or the private sector, 191 speakers, 81 heads of state or government, government ministers, officials of international organizations and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon are gathered together to plan the future of the relationship between human beings and the planet we live on.
The conference’s motto and the document to be adopted at the end of the conference are entitled ‘the future we want.’ And literally, the UNCSD is charged with shaping the future that leaders want for mankind living on Earth. The stakes are high: the planet’s needs require immediate response and actions, but the decisions will come at a high economic cost not everyone is willing to face.
The UNCSD is better known as Rio+20. With some irony, the name reminds us that a first conference - the ‘Earth Summit’ - took place in Rio in 1992, twenty years ago.
The conference resulted in many commitments and the realization by many countries that the then current way of life, consumption and pollution could not be sustained. Yet - twenty years later - a global concrete action plan to reduce pollutants and emissions and to lower human impact on the Earth has still to emerge.
Since the Stockholm conference in 1972, the environment has been the focus of many international fora with an ever-growing sense of emergency – however, never urgent enough to lead to global agreement or implementation. In 1972, for the first time, countries realized the need for decisions to reduce environmental degradation. Creating and tasking the UN Environment Program (UNEP) with co-operation and treaty-making was part of this realization.
The 1980s saw the emergence of the idea of sustainable development: while it became clear that natural resources had limited ability to regenerate themselves, sustainable use of the environment became an objective that became associated with poverty eradication. Conferences and summits followed in Rio, Kyoto, and Johannesburg, each setting targets, with limited implementation or no ratification. The last of them - the 1997 Copenhagen summit - nearly collapsed, ending with furious exchanges among participating countries.
Is Rio+20 different from other summits?
The changes in climate change, and a raising awareness from governments and civil societies, have created a favorable context in which Rio+20 can take place. For instance, all national negotiators have agreed on a 49-page document to be signed by their countries’ leaders – although some are happier than others.
The European Union was pushing for Sustainable Development Goals that would succeed to the Millennium Development Goals. The measure was rejected in the negotiated document, leading Connie Hedegaard, the Commissioner for climate change, to bitterly comment on the negotiations on Twitter. He wrote: "Nobody in that room adopting the text was happy. That's how weak it is. And they all knew." Other civil society organizations and NGOs also complained because of the low levels of commitment and the relative paucity of specific figures in the text.
On the other hand, many negotiators welcomed the positive effect of achieving consensus at an environment conference – something which has not happened since Rio 1992. At a press conference, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota stressed: "We have a text that has been agreed 100 percent by the 193 [UN] parties (…) It amounts to a victory for multilateralism."
What does Rio+20 deal with?
Rio+20 addresses a number of global concerns on current and estimated evolutions and most of the areas of priority work brought forward by Rio+20 aren’t anything new. It is the case of issues linked to energy supplies through new alternatives, the needs created by the growing urbanization of the world, food, agriculture and water use and provisions for a population on the rise, preserving biodiversity, and being better prepared to counter the disasters caused by climate change (floods, drought, storms, etc.). However, the scale of risk is changing, and estimates are becoming clearer.
Emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India are energy-hungry, and so are developed countries. With current solutions, their needs combined with energyconsumption in developed countries cannot be sustained. According to WWF’s 2012 Living Planet Report "we are using 50 percent more resources than the Earth can provide. By 2030, even two planets will not be enough."
(Global Footprint Network 2011 - WWF)
As emissions of greenhouse gases are scaling new peaks, signs of climate change are becoming more visible: glacier melt, changes in the habits of migrating species, desertification and increased flooding. This, in turn, increases the risks to food security.
In a recent press release, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns that "we stand at a crossroads." Explains the FAO: "the world's ecosystems and biodiversity are already under extreme pressure from overexploitation, degradation and the effects of climate change. We now face the challenge of raising global food production by 60 percent by 2050 while managing the natural resource base so that we are not robbing future generations. We thus must eliminate hunger and poverty, using methods that do not compromise the future of life on this planet."
In an attempt to show their common commitment to for effective action, the negotiators also planned to tackle institutional effectiveness – since at present, many agencies and programs’ mandates overlap and create confusion. Negotiators also wrote, in the document, that they "recognize[d] that the twenty years since the Earth Summit in 1992 have seen uneven progress, including in sustainable development and poverty eradication. We emphasize the need to make progress in implementing previous commitments."
Another topic – new on the table – that will be discussed is the one of a ‘green economy’. The concept was only created in 2008 along the lines of the principles of sustainable development. It envisions economic performance to be compatible with environmental preservation. The green economy will be linked to the creation of ‘green jobs’ that do not harm the environment.
Interestingly, the green economy was one of the most controversial parts of the negotiations. The Group of 77 and China asked for greater financing than developed countries were willing to commit to in the text ($30 billion yearly). The Indian environment minister Jayanti Natarajan expressed his disappointment by denouncing the ‘weak’ political will of developed countries: "Green Economy has to be bottoms up and democratized. Otherwise it will be no more than green-wash. [The] cost of green development cannot be unaffordable for the poor."
What should we retain about the conference?
The success of consensus on the negotiated document is definitely to be praised. After multiple failures and countries’ defaulting on conferences over the past two decades, Rio+20 sends a positive message about governments showing more willingness to act in interest of future generations. However, further commitments are necessary. For instance, the funding of the ‘star’ project – that ‘green economy’ - will probably lead to many lengthy debates, which is a risk as the environmental clock is ticking. As Ban Ki-Moon rightly mentionned at the opening of the conference: "Time is not on our side." Fear of other countries ‘free-riding’ on the international emission regimes, or not applying expensive measures, should be overcome by a vision of what’s necessary for the future of the planet – and the humans who live on it.
(Images © UN; WWF)