By Asoka Abeygunawardana
The United Nations Rio+20 summit will be held with the participation of large number of heads of a States including the President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapakse from June 20 to 22 in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
This conference is held to review what happened since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in 1992 in Rio. In actuality, the history of Sustainable Development in the United Nations started in 1972 and the effort is not 20 but 40 years old. In 1972, the United Nations Conference on Human Environment held in Stockholm discussed about the ‘rights’ of the human family to a healthy and productive environment. By that time there was a growing concern regarding the rate of degradation of the natural environment due to human intervention. It took 20 years for humankind to realise that the environment cannot be protected in isolation without combining it with the development programmes of states.
As a result, twenty years later, in 1992 the UN Rio earth summit adopted an agenda for environment and development for the 21st Century. Under Agenda 21 (A Programme of Action for Sustainable Development in the 21st Century) contained the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. For the first time, the lifestyle of current civilisation was addressed in Principle 8 of the Rio Declaration and the urgency of a very significant change in both the scope and depth of consumption and production patterns was expressly and broadly acknowledged by State leaders.
In 2002, ten years after the Rio Declaration, as progress was not satisfactory, a follow-up conference, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) was convened in Johannesburg to renew the global commitment to sustainable development.
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in 2012 - also referred to as ‘Rio+20’ seeks three objectives: securing renewed political commitment to sustainable development, assessing the progress and implementation gaps in meeting already agreed commitments, and addressing new and emerging challenges. The Member States have agreed on the following two themes for the Conference: a green economy within the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and an institutional framework for sustainable development.
Since UNCED, the term ‘sustainable development’ is widely used. The concept has been incorporated in many UN declarations. Despite the many calls since the 1960s by scientists and civil groups signalling the vulnerability of the earth, everyone recognises that of the three pillars of human civilisation, namely, the economic, social and environment pillars, the environment pillar has proven the most difficult to grant equal status to.
The central issue discussed in the 1960’s was the depletion of bio-diversity. It was time to rethink how people grow, share and consume their food. If done right, agriculture, forestry and fisheries can provide nutritious food for all, while supporting people-centred rural development and protecting the environment. However, right now, our soils, freshwater, oceans, forests and bio-diversity are being rapidly degraded. At present species are becoming extinct at the fastest rate known in geological history and most of these extinctions are tied to human activity. Experts estimate that the world is losing 137 plant, animal and insect species every single day due to rainforest deforestation. That equates to 50,000 species a year. Global deforestation sharply accelerated around 1852. It has been estimated that about half of the Earth’s mature tropical forests of the original 15 - 16 million square kilometres that until 1947 covered the planet, have now be destroyed. Some scientists have predicted that by 2030 there will only be 10% remaining with another 10% in a degraded condition. 80% of forest cover would, by then, be lost, and with them, hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable species. The global Living Planet Index (LPI) has declined by more than 30% since the UN conference in 1972, suggesting that on average, vertebrate populations fell by nearly one-third during that period. The Tropical LPI shows a sharper decline of almost 60%.
The food and agriculture sector which is in the hands of few transnational corporations supplying agro chemicals to the world are the culprits obstructing key solutions for sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately governments worldwide have become puppets of these transnational companies which are ruining the world. A profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish today’s 925 million hungry and the additional 2 billion hungry people expected by 2050 and also to avoid another catastrophe of ‘mass extinction’.
Climate change is putting even more pressure on the resources humankind depends on. Energy is central to everything in modern civilisation and the discussion in 1992 was to reduce CO2 emitting fossil fuels use and find alternative ways of meeting the increasing demand for energy. However since 1992 annual global fossil oil consumption has increased by 25% and coal consumption by 50% increasing annual Carbon Dioxide emissions by 40%. As a result, the global average CO2concentration in the atmosphere which was only 275 ppm pre-industrial era, increased to 320ppm in 1972, to 350 ppm in 1992 and to 395 ppm in 2012. This year the Arctic concentration reached the 400 ppm mark.
Climate change negotiations during the last 20 years have failed to provide anticipated results and climatic changes are about to reach irreversible levels. Every year millions of people, most of them children, die from diseases associated with inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene. Water scarcity, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation negatively impact food security, livelihood choices and educational opportunities for poor families across the world. Further, drought afflicts some of the world’s poorest countries, worsening hunger and malnutrition. Compounding the problem, disasters caused by earthquakes, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tsunamis and others have devastating impacts on people, environments and economies.
After 20 years it is clear that people living on earth have failed to live up to the expectations raised in Rio in 1992. Agenda 21, agreed to in 1992, failed to become the agenda adopted for the 21stCentury.
Similarly the term ‘Sustainable Development’ discussed in 2002 was misused by those who were advocating unsustainable development pathways. Now, world leaders are planning to meet in Rio once again this time to discuss sustainable development in the context of Green Economy and Poverty Eradication.
It is necessary to understand that it is not possible to eradicate poverty in a never ending development path while widening the consumption gap between the rich and the poor. The phrase “Green economy” itself is one that can be easily misused. The terms ‘Green economy’ and ‘green jobs’ can be used for promoting unsustainable life styles. It is entirely probable that after another ten years the world’s leaders may have to gather and try to find out where they went wrong.
We wasted 20 valuable years in useless negotiations. We have no time left for further negotiations. In another 10 years at Rio+30 we may have to conclude and say that the gate is closed and we have no way out to avoid global catastrophe. The answer is not a ‘green economy’ but ‘changing unsustainable life styles’. It is our moral duty to forget the ‘economic development’ and establish a new value system not for ‘sustainable development’ but for ‘sustainable existence’.