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Road to Rio +20 2012


The Convoluted and Fractious Road to Rio 2012 -- the Earth Summit

We are in the run-up to the 2012 Earth Summit to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -- and change once again is in the air.  The 1992 Earth Summit, Rio 2012’s predecessor event, brought together many disparate parties in an attempt to change the way world governments and key stakeholders looked at economic activities (and economic development).  The noble objective was to begin to change societal behavior so that wantonly destroying finite and precious natural resources and otherwise polluting our bright blue orb transiting around the sun would no longer be acceptable in both established and emerging economies.

Change did take place in various and incremental ways since the 1992 summit, and certainly public awareness of certain key issues – such as climate change and possible dramatic effects on societies – is far greater today than was the case 20 years ago.

Change as a rule most often occurs glacially; it is incremental. The 1992 Earth Summit stage was set earlier by the inauguration of Earth Day in 1970, the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, and of course, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED- more commonly known as the Brundtland Commission) in 1987, which established a blueprint for sustainable development: “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to met their own needs.”

It has been 20 years since the United Nations has put together an event of the magnitude of Rio 1992 in which environment, economic policy and development were all taken under consideration. The world of 1992 – like today’s world – had many complex issues and problems to address. The message of the 1992 Earth Summit in retrospect as conveyed by the United Nations, “reflected the complexity of the problems facing us: that poverty as well as excessive consumption by affluent populations place damaging stress on the environment. Governments recognized the need to redirect international and national plans and policies to ensure that all economic decisions fully took into account any environmental impact. And the message has produced results, making eco-efficiency a guiding principle for business and governments alike.”

Rio 1992 produced laudable results. The UN states in retrospect that since then, world governments and businesses began to look differently at production patterns to eliminate toxic byproducts in the manufacturing processes. 

Today influentials in the private, public and social sectors are looking (for example) to identify and implement the use of alternative energy sources to reduce dependent upon fossil fuels which have been linked to negative effects of climate change.  Developing mass transportation systems in order to reduce individual vehicle emissions and smog and address pollution-related health issues is a possible outcome. Also, people, businesses and governments have become more aware of the shrinkage of water supplies -- a most precious natural resource nourishing the world’s people and of critical importance to many industries.

Positive Results – 1992-2002:  The 1992 Earth Summit bore significant fruit. It resulted in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 27 principles meant to guide future sustainable development around the globe; Agenda 21, a comprehensive action plan related to sustainable development in all nations; and the Forest Principles, a non-binding statement of principles on conservation of world forest resources.

“Unfinished business,” open for sovereign signature were the Convention on Biological Diversity, a key document of sustainable development as related to ecosystems, species and genetic resources; and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, a landmark, non-binding treaty on the limitation of greenhouse gases which led into the Kyoto Protocol, currently adopted by over 190 states.  At its conclusion in 1992, the Conference Secretary General, Maurice Strong, characterized the Earth Summit as an “historic moment for humanity.” It should be noted that all of the accomplishments of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio did not come easily.

This brings us to Rio 2012. Among the lofty visions of the upcoming conference: “We renew our commitment to sustainable development and express our determination to pursue the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.”

Have we learned much or changed much since 1992?  Has the world built upon the lessons and experiences of the Earth Summit? As the first draft of the UN declaration for Rio+20 was released in New York, John Vidal, writing in The Guardian, a UK newspaper devoting considerable space to sustainability issues, reports in his article Decisions must be made at Rio Earth summit, urges UN official, the UN’s executive coordinator of the conference, Brice Lalonde, himself a former French environment minister, said: "[The draft] is a good start. Most topics are on the table: from efficient international co-operation to sustainable development goals, from a regular review of the state of the planet to an agency for the environment, from universal access to energy to social safety floors. What is missing now is one verb: to decide. Because to stress, urge, call, recognise, underscore, encourage, support or reaffirm is not enough. When heads of state meet, it should be to decide."

“Decide” – key phrase -- -- the agenda, as previously revealed to readers of The Guardian, is asking world leaders to decide to commit to “10 new sustainable development goals for the world and to promise to build green economies. On the table will be a new agreement to protect oceans, to approve an annual state of the planet report, set up a major world agency for the environment, and appoint a global "ombudsperson", or high commissioner, for future generations.”

Already there is controversy. UK Prime Minister David Cameron, despite his having promised to lead the “greenest government ever,” advised that he is not planning to attend, according to The Guardian, “despite the date of the summit being changed to avoid a clash with the Queen's diamond jubilee.”

A Canadian group, ETC, which describes itself as being focused on the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights, was critical. A spokeswoman reacted: “"The draft declaration calls for bold and decisive action and then offers weak and equivocal statements, reiterating commitment to the same old policies that have failed to deliver on sustainable development for 20 years. Alarmingly, business is called upon show leadership on the green economy – completely ignoring how well-entrenched and increasingly consolidated private interests have steered us away from sustainable development thus far. We need a clear commitment to support peasant agriculture and food sovereignty."

Also, as reported in a blog post: “Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser at Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian, ‘This Rio summit comes after two decades of delays and broken promises on sustainable development which has left millions in poverty and pushed ecosystems to the brink of collapse. Whilst this draft text covers the key issues, it also demonstrates a dismal lack of urgency in tackling them.’ “

The draft declaration for Rio 2012 will be initially discussed and refined in New York 25-27 January. The pace of news coverage and commentary is already picking up around the globe.

The long road to Rio 2012 has been a significant journey from Stockholm to Van Brundtland to Rio (to Copenhagen in 2009) and now back to Brazil. World leaders will have an opportunity to navigate a path to a greener economy. Will they choose this path wisely? Can a consensus arise from an already- fractious atmosphere?

As another contributor to The Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog, Victor Anderson, wrote last April: “Rio in June 2012 could act as a rallying point to galvanize action, and move forward on what I have been calling in this blog the good transition, because if we don't, we are in for a bad transition as the situation is going to change one way or the other. Currently the world is on the route to increasing droughts, floods, extinctions, and general deterioration in the ecological underpinnings of our lives.”

As we create this new Hot Topic:  Road to Rio Earth Summit 2012 -- we are less than a half-year away and already the 2012 Rio Earth Summit is becoming a hot topic. The editors of Accountability Central are tracking breaking news, updates, commentary and opinion, and bringing these to you as this important event takes shape in the first half of 2012.   There are many dimensions to the arguments raised over the past 20 and more years in this iterative debate – we will share many of these with you in the coming weeks.


The Editors at Accountability Central

January 15 2012


Road to Rio +20 2012

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