A damp squib in Rio


COMPARED TO the memorable air of hope and optimism generated by the Earth Summit in 1992, last week’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – Rio+20 – was a damp squib that left insiders grasping at straws in a vain effort to ignite it. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon was clearly trying to perform this difficult feat when he claimed that the outcome “provides a firm foundation for social, economic and environmental wellbeing”, adding that “it is now our responsibility to build on it.”

Mr Ban was closer to terra firma when he conceded that the road ahead, in defining a green economy and new sustainable development goals, would be “long and hard”. He also implicitly called for support from civil society to “create a critical mass, an irresistible momentum” to overcome the inevitable obstacles on this journey towards a more environmentally sustainable economy.

Green Cross International, founded by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, complained that “Rio+20 has hidden its lack of results behind the fig leaf of the ‘green economy’ ... But for many political leaders, the ‘green economy’ is merely a convenient term used to rekindle the same global economy with some environmental-friendly intentions or actions on the side.” It will have to be deeper than such a superficial dressing-up of established ways of exploiting Earth’s natural resources. That’s why some real movement is required to deal with unsustainable production and consumption patterns as well as work towards a new global indicator of wealth that goes beyond the narrowness of GDP.

Despite a barrage of media events during Rio+20, the United Nations Environment Programme did not succeed in having itself significantly upgraded as the World Environment Organisation, even after decades of debate about whether its mandate should be strengthened. But if the conference was “a failure of epic proportions”, as Greenpeace suggested, the parallel People’s Summit that drew huge gatherings in Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo Park “demonstrated that real solutions to the current crises do exist and that people are successfully mobilising around them,” as Friends of the Earth noted. The links made during its multiplicity of events by activists from all over the world – and the social media they increasingly use to communicate with each other – will be vital to maintaining pressure on world leaders to advance the sustainable development agenda.

Thus, the road from Rio+20 is likely to be more important than the road that led to it. The UN has trumpeted the news that more than 700 “voluntary commitments” to promote sustainable development, amounting to some $513 billion (€410 billion), were made in Rio by governments, businesses, civil society groups, universities and others. Ireland will also have a role in shaping Europe’s response to the outcome. As Dóchas director Hans Zomer has said, “it is clear that Irelands EU presidency in 2013 is going to be crucial in that regard”. It will fall to Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, who represented the Government in Rio, to apply his political skills to securing progress on this front.

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