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An Ailing Planet’s Path to Rio+20


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The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from June 20-22. It's the third conference of its kind. (picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Our planet’s health is ailing. That’s the message in short from the 2012 Living Planet Report. Its content is sobering. We are devouring 50 percent more resources than the Earth produces annually. Species populations have plummeted by 30 percent in the last 40 years. Freshwater scarcity abounds, and CO2 levels are soaring.

Yet, the report’s co-authors (WWF, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network) hope this research isn’t shelved along with the growing library of publications detailing human-related environmental decline. Instead, they want it used as evidence for world leaders to finally turn words into action.

The timing for this is right, at least.

The Living Planet Report comes out one month before the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was in Rio, 20 years ago at the first Earth Summit, that the concept of “sustainable development” was integrated into the world agenda. Now once again, world leaders and thousands of other participants are gathering to reflect on progress and, ideally, agree on a number of concrete commitments to make good on the evolving vision for sustainable development.

But, with Rio+20 now a few short weeks away, it’s hard to muster the high hopes of the two previous summits due to contracted pre-meeting negotiations, and the globe’s poor environmental report card.

Ambitions were high at the 1992 Summit. The Cold War and East-West rivalries were over, and many believed the timing was right for striking a new global partnership. Negotiators reached agreement on the ambitious Agenda 21, the master plan for achieving sustainable development. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the Statement of Forest Principles contributed to how the international community would cooperate to move ahead. International agreements on climate change and biodiversity were also opened for signature, as the first step to becoming legally binding treaties.

Ten years down the road, the follow up meeting, the World Summit on Sustainable Development, took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, to take stock of progress on implementing Agenda 21. Though farsighted commitments were made, many have not been met, including restoring the world’s depleted fish stocks by 2015, and considerably reducing by 2010 the speed at which rare animals and plants are going extinct.

This time around, the Summit will focus on a “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.” Few agree on the precise definition or process for greening global markets, but the general aim is to tweak outdated growth models to instead focus on boosting people’s living standards and wellbeing without exhausting natural resources. This would be a sea change for development and for tackling today’s environmental challenges.

Unfortunately, the recent negotiations on the draft outcome document for Rio+20 were pitiable. Delegates agreed to 21 paragraphs, while 400 remain up for debate, particularly on green economy, and the list of sustainable development goals, a possible tangible outcome of the meeting. The pre-meeting negotiations will resume in New York at the end of May.

Even if these negotiations flop, Rio+20 may not be for naught.

Take Mozambique, for example. Here is a country that remains near bottom of most human-development indexes, only recently emerged from a 16-year civil war, and just learned it has a giant natural gas reserve off its coast – a windfall that history shows can swiftly turn from blessing to curse. Instead of running ahead with a business-as-usual approach, the government’s pausing to reflect on how best use their “natural capital” by creating a 20-year Green Economy Plan so their resources will endure. The timing of Rio+20 is to thank.

Still, a better outcome for Rio+20 would be for governments to agree on aggressive, time-bound sustainable development goals to help spur the transformative change so frequently touted in the negotiations. Strong political leadership is required for this to happen. Hence, the call for President Barack Obama attended the Summit. This would help prove our country’s commitment to greening the economy and endow Rio+20 with the gravity it deserves.

Perhaps then, when the Living Planet Report is published two years from now, it won’t be such a dismal read.

Robynne Boyd About the Author: Robynne Boyd began writing about people and the planet when living barefoot and by campfire on the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Over a decade later and now fully dependent on electricity, she continues this work as an editor for IISD Reporting Services. When not in search of misplaced commas and terser prose, Robynne writes about environment and energy. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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