Rio+20: Too Little, Too Late?

June 18, 2012 | 12:27 pm
Alden Meyer

This week, representatives from over 190 countries, including some 130 leaders, will be in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. This is the third such gathering of leaders aimed at grappling with the joint challenges of environmental protection and economic development, building on the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also held in Rio, and the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, Sweden. The Stockholm summit produced the first-ever UN declaration of principles on the environment, and a detailed plan of action. The Rio Earth Summit saw major new treaties signed on climate change and biodiversity, as well as adoption of Agenda 21, an updated plan of action on both environment and development issues.

Aerial view of Rio de Janeiro

I was in Rio 20 years ago, along with UCS’s late chairman, Henry Kendall and then-President Bud Ris. We were frustrated by President George H. W. Bush’s refusal to sign on to the biodiversity treaty and his demands that the climate treaty be purely voluntary as the price of U.S. ratification, as well as his famous statement that “the American way of life is not negotiable.” At the time, I told the media that the president’s remarks were “a finger in the eye of international public opinion.” Despite this, there was excitement that at least some progress was being made on these issues, and that the whole issue of global environmental sustainability was the focus of such a large gathering of world leaders. As Rio+20 begins, it’s fair to ask whether we’ve moved forward or backward in the 20 years since leaders last gathered in Rio.

The United Nations Environment Program has provided some in-depth answers to this question, in the fifth edition of its Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5). It’s not a pretty picture: of 90 important environmental goals and objectives that were assessed, the report finds that “significant progress” has only been made on four: eliminating the production and use of substances that deplete the ozone layer, removal of lead from fuel, increasing access to improved water supplies and boosting research to reduce pollution of the marine environment.” Some progress has been made on 40 of the goals, and little or no progress on 24 others, including climate change, fish stocks, and desertification and drought.

In releasing the report on June 6th, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner summed it up by saying that “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.” He challenged world leaders coming to Rio to rise to the occasion: “The moment has come to put away the paralysis of indecision, acknowledge the facts and face up to the common humanity that unites all peoples,” he said. “Rio+20 is a moment to turn sustainable development from aspiration and patchy implementation into a genuine path to progress and prosperity for this and the next generations to come.”

As the Rio summit opens this Wednesday, it doesn’t appear that leaders will seize this opportunity. The tortuous negotiations over the “focused political document” to be issued by leaders at the end of the summit on Friday demonstrate how deep the divisions are over the way forward; even the phrase “green economy” has become a lightning rod.

But there are rays of hope.  The Earth Summit Watch project is tracking the initiatives and commitments that countries will be putting forward this week in Rio, and it’s a growing list. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, which aims to double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency, double the share of renewables in the global energy mix by 2030, and provide access to modern energy services for all of humanity, is picking up support from countries, businesses, and international institutions (though a number of climate justice groups have expressed strong concerns about the initiative). And in an echo of the famous speech by 12-year-old Severn Suzuki in Rio 20 years, ago, a 17-year-old New Zealand school girl from Wellington, New Zealand, Brittany Trilford, won the “Make a Date With History” contest sponsored by the Global Campaign for Climate Action and other NGOs, and will be giving world leaders her own call to action at the opening of Rio+20’s high-level segment later this week.

The problem, of course, is that these and the many other initiatives being unveiled in Rio are nowhere near adequate to the mounting environmental challenges we face. As my colleague Wael Hmaidan, executive director of Climate Action Network, recently put it, “climate change [is] like you are in a car trying to stop before reaching a ledge. We are applying the brakes but we are still far away from decelerating enough not to fall from the ledge.” And with the global economic crisis, continuing conflict and political instability in many regions, and other matters competing for their attention, it doesn’t seem that world leaders are going to muster the political will we need to confront the climate crisis — or the many other threats to the health and well-being of humanity — any time soon.