Redirection needed in Rio

 

WORLD LEADERS have received a siren call from the UN Environment Programme (Unep) on the eve of next week’s gathering in Rio de Janeiro to mark the Earth Summit’s 20th anniversary. Its fifth Global Environmental Outlook starkly spells out the uncomfortable truth that the world “remains on an unsustainable track despite hundreds of internationally agreed goals and objectives”. Of the 500-plus such deals, Unep assessed 90 in detail and found “significant progress” had been made in just four of them, such as agreements to phase out lead in petrol and chemicals blamed for depleting the ozone layer.

 “Some progress” was reported in 40 others, including efforts to extend protected habitats and halt deforestation, but “little or no progress” was detected for 24 – notably climate change, deteriorating fish stocks, drought and desertification.

The report is an indictment of indecision, prevarication and a gross failure of political will to take responsibility for the planet’s future. It cautions that, if humanity does not urgently change its ways, “several critical thresholds may be exceeded, beyond which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet could occur”. Or, to quote Unep’s executive director Achim Steiner: “If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail and cannot be reversed and ‘decoupled’ [from economic growth], then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation.” The latest report, he said, “reminds world leaders and nations meeting at Rio+20 why a decisive and defining transition towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient, job-generating green economy is urgently needed”.

The “Rio+20” gathering – officially the second UN Conference on Sustainable Development – is intended to strengthen commitments to achieve this still-elusive goal by focusing on the need to ensure a “green economy” forms the core of recovery from the recession. More than 100 world leaders, most of them heads of state or government, are due to attend the “high-level segment” of the conference, but they will not include Taoiseach Enda Kenny or President Michael D Higgins; instead, Ireland will be represented by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan and Minister of State for Trade and Development Joe Costello. This reflects the relatively low priority assigned by the Government to issues raised by Unep and a more widespread belief that the Rio conference will probably not produce anything more tangible than yet another florid declaration.

But time is running out. As Unep noted, “scientific evidence shows Earth systems are being pushed towards their biophysical limits, with evidence that these limits are close and have in some cases been exceeded”. It is still possible to change the future, as it says, by adopting an “ambitious set of sustainability targets” for 2050 and changing course to achieve them. Whether this will happen is still unclear. What is abundantly clear is the pressing need for commitments by all countries, including Ireland, to play their part in saving the planet.

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