Nations back in Brazil to build on sustainable commitments


Differences are already surfacing as “Rio+20” delegates gather, writes FRANK McDONALDin Rio de Janeiro

WE ALL thought we were going to Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to save the world. The Earth Summit drew an unprecedented 108 heads of state or government and 25,000 other participants to Brazil’s most magical city and seemed to mark a turning point of potentially enormous significance.

Its 20th anniversary is being marked this week by another big bash, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or “Rio+20”, which is expected to attract twice as many participants, including at least 114 heads of state or government, vice-presidents and deputy premiers; Taoiseach Enda Kenny will not be among them.

As in 1992, the negotiations are taking place way out at Rio Centro, the main convention centre some 35km south of the city, surrounded by increasingly tight security. A huge civil society gathering in Flamengo Park, close to the city centre, is billed as the “people’s summit”, echoing the colourful Global Forum held there 20 years ago.

Rio+20’s declared purpose is to strengthen commitments to sustainable development and build a “green economy”. But only limited progress was made at preparatory meetings in New York in March and in Rio over the past week, largely because of differences over defining what “green” actually means in this context.

Looking back, the most notable achievement of the Earth Summit was the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which pledged to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-induced] interference with the climate system”.

This was remarkable for its time, not least because the scientific evidence for climate change was a lot less solid 20 years ago than it is now. “The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather,” says leading US scientist James Hansen, who heads Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Last year we witnessed some very extreme weather indeed, in line with predictions made by Hansen in the 1980s about the likely impacts of global warming. Meteorologists also ranked 2011 as the 10th warmest year on record despite a strong La Niña phenomenon in the Pacific, which tends to cool global temperatures.

Biodiversity is also taking a battering. Despite the convention adopted at Rio in 1992 and pledges since then to halt losses, it has declined by 12 per cent globally and by as much as 30 per cent in the tropics. Indeed, the rate at which species are becoming extinct may be up to 1,000 times higher today than in pre-industrial times.

Along with 17 other winners of the Blue Planet Prize – the environmental Nobel – Hansen co-authored a declaration in February saying society has “no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilisation. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us”.

Worldwatch Institute president Robert Engelman agrees, saying “there won’t be much point in revisiting the Rio+20 conference in another 20 years to try to

figure out what went wrong. We know enough right now about the state of the world to see clearly that we have to change the way we live and the way we do business.”

But Maurice Strong, who was the Earth Summit’s secretary general, has lamented political priorities that are “focused on the immediate issues of economic and financial crises and accompanying political turbulence in much of the world”, with a decline in concern about the environment.

“This does not augur well for the success of Rio+20.”

Gustavo da Fonseca, head of natural resources at the UN’s Global Environmental Facility and another Earth Summit veteran, says the world “has grown weary of slow-moving negotiations that lag further and further behind the mounting environmental problems they are intended to solve” – especially the dangers of global warming.

Brazil-born da Fonseca believes, however, that Rio+20 could be “one of the most important and forward-looking environmental conferences yet”, because there are such low expectations for it.

Also, the fact that no new convention or proposed global targets are on the table means the diplomatic stakes this time “are not overly high”.

As for sustainable development, Dr Joe Smith believes it has become a “tired old phrase, possibly moribund.

“Rather than trying to resuscitate it every few years with a global shindig, we should dust down one impulse that sits at the heart of it: the economy is a human artefact that we made, and can remake according to changing priorities.

“Instead of arm-waving statements about what a green economy might be like, they could just get on with building the political capital that will deliver a chunky floor price for carbon and a means of rewarding countries for protecting eco-systems and carbon sinks,” says Dr Smith, who is the Open University’s premier environmentalist.

Then, we could “get on with the messy business of working on the rest of the story”, with the “doggedness and ingenuity of leading businesses, citizens’ groups and local governments already delivering so much positive change and giving confidence to the rest of us that the place we’re going can be far better than the place we are now.”