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Rio+20 - Success or Failure

by Michael Evans 02 Jul 2012
Rio+20 - Success or Failure

Success or Failure? - Rio+20 Logo

The Rio+20 Earth Summit has now been and gone. It had been billed as a "once in a generation chance" to turn the global economy onto a sustainable track. 50,000 people attended, including 100 heads of state, but noticeably not US President Barack Obama or UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Ten priorities for a planet in peril were identified:

  • Deforestation. Deforestation and forest degradation produces 10% of the world's carbon emissions and Brazil has the largest area of rainforest in the world. Although there has been a reduction in Brazilian deforestation, efforts to connect avoided deforestation to a global carbon deal have foundered.

  • Population. The world's 7 billionth person was born last year and by the middle of the century the world's population is predicted to reach 9 billion. This rise could swamp any efforts made to protect the planet, but in recent years population control has been seen to be to coercive and controversial.

  • Endangered species. On the whole, human beings are healthier and wealthier than ever before, but nearly everything else that lives on the planet is not and there has been little concerted effort internationally to deal with this.

  • Climate Change. Global warming is the most significant environmental threat. Global carbon emissions keep rising and there has been no international agreement on how these emissions should be reduced.

  • World Hunger. Although famine is increasingly a thing of the past, 925 million people in the world still go hungry. It is anticipated that by 2050 the world may need to produce twice as much food as it does now.

  • Water Scarcity. Approximately one in nine people in the world lack access to a pure water supply. This can lead to preventable disease and reduced agricultural yield. There is plenty of water for everyone, but fresh water supplies are threatened by pollution, overuse and drought caused by climate change.

  • Global Poverty. The single biggest contributor to ill health is poverty. In the last 20 years global poverty has significantly fallen, but many countries still lag behind.

  • Renewable Energy. Although renewable energy resources are growing at a rate of 18% per year, they still only produce 3% of the world's energy supply. Germany leads the way and plans to go 100% renewable by 2050.

  • Oceans. Oceans cover 75% of the earth's surface and are valuable to human life, but are in great danger from pollution, overfishing and climate change. This has been largely ignored, but Australia has recently announced that it is to create the world's largest marine reserve.

  • Air Pollution. According to the World Health Organisation, 1.3 million people die each year as a result of outside air pollution. This is a particular problem in developing nations like China where much of the pollution is due to the burning of coal.

    As with such conferences in the past, many fine words were spoken that led to a final statement, "The Future We Want". This consisted of 253 paragraphs of affirmations and entreaties, but in truth all it added up to was little more than a plea for something better.

    Barbara Stocking, chief executive of OXFAM GB told the BBC that although the UN hope for the conference had been to turn the global economy onto a sustainable track, the leaders of the world "really did not take decisions that will take us forward".

    The executive director of Greenpeace Kumi Naidoo went even further. Quoted in Time Magazine, he described the conference as "a failure of epic proportions" and the final statement as being "the longest suicide note in history".

    Of course, one can't help reflecting that if world leaders find it impossible to agree on solutions to the violence in Syria or the European financial crisis, what hope is there in getting any agreement on world environmental issues, particularly since a number of the major players did not even attend the conference.

    So where does that leave us? Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg feels that with no unified agreement, it would be more appropriate for some of the attention and money that is currently being directed to climate change to be directed towards some of the environmental threats that are killing people right now. Major areas cited are provision of clean water, improved sanitation and reducing threats from air pollution.

    Others compare this line of thinking as being rather like straightening the pictures while the house burns down, but one thing is clear and that is that top-down solving of the world's problems is no longer an option.

    The only hope of any form of co-ordination now seems to lie with the international business community. The president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Peter Bakker, believes that the corporate sector offers the best opportunity for saving the world. He believes that local coalitions in individual countries or cities are the answer. He calls these "coalitions of the willing".

    The challenge will be persuading investors that foregoing some of their profit can make a major contribution to saving the world.

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