A UN conference on Sustainable Development was held in Rio de Janeiro, from June 20 to 22. It was called Rio-plus-20 in reference to 20 years follow up milestone to the historic summit in 1992 in the same city. That event had placed sustainable development as centrepiece of UN and the international community’s agenda for the future of humanity on earth and had come out with three solid international treaties on tackling global warming, arresting rapid loss of species, and saving the world’s soils from increasing destruction-plus a 40-chapter roadmap called Agenda 21 for addressing future environmental issues.
Sustainable development is potentially a vast subject but its key areas can be reduced to evolving concepts, creating global institutions, identification of processes and reform proposals for governance models. The two themes at Rio de Janeiro were “green economy” within the context agreed upon by member-states and an institutional framework for sustainable development while broader conference objectives were to secure renewed political commitment, assess progress in implementation of previous commitments and address new challenges.
In spite of representation from 193 countries, including nearly 100 presidents and prime ministers, an unprecedentedly weak set of conclusions emerged in from the conference even though various issues and subjects had been under discussions for months. If the summit was intended to give impetus to the work done in 1992, it fell well short of that objective more so as it had left the more contentious issue of climate change altogether out of deliberations. As one journalist observed, the verbs in the communique let out the whole story, with “encourage” appearing 50 times, “support” 99 times, “we will” five times and “must” only seven times in the final imprimatur.
Some of the glaring failures of the summit were elimination from the agenda of any discussions on subsidies on fossil fuels to curb carbon dioxide emissions and plans to enshrine the right of the poor to clean water, adequate food and various forms of energy. In spite of some bare-breasted protests by women’s rights groups; there was disappointment about removal of text concerning women’s reproductive rights over opposition from the Vatican, supported by Russia and the Islamic block.
The developed West continues to be in denial about climate change even though a group of Noble Prize-winning scientists advised the organisers in the clearest possible terms that: “There was now unequivocal evidence about earth being on the threshold of a future of unprecedented risks. The combined effects of climate change, resource scarcity, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem resilience at a time of increased demand poses a real threat to humanity’s welfare.” The EU has already placed 14 metals as critical in industrial supply-chains productions.
Earlier, 22 top biologists and scientists had published a landmark report in the magazine Nature and warned that critical “tipping points” could be reached in urbanisation where 43 percent of non-ice land has already been consumed, and if the proportion exceeds 50 percent (which is expected to happen in 20 years at current projections), life on earth as we know today will start to collapse. The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) five-yearly Global Environmental has a similarly dismal outlook: “The scale, speed and rate of change of global drivers are without precedent. Burgeoning populations and growing economies are pushing environmental systems to destabilising limits.”
Consider that fears expressed during Rio summit in 1992 are a ground reality of 2012 and like all laws of nature, fears expressed today will be a ground reality of tomorrow. Already 38 percent of coral reefs have shrunk, floods incidents have doubled, and 170 large “dead zones” created by pollution, have appeared in the oceans. The UNEP reported during the summit that insufficient action, or no action at all, has been taken on 86 of 90 the most important environmental objectives agreed by the world’s governments, which has increased soil degradation, depleted fresh-water resources, increased sea pollution, accelerated the climate change phenomenon and caused over-fishing. The number of hungry people worldwide has gone up by a billion.
Since the 1992 Earth Summit, the number of multilateral environmental agreements has grown significantly and there are now hundreds of binding and non-binding global agreements on environmental issues, as well as a wide range of other agreements which address social and economic aspects of development. But there is a wide gap between strategy and implementation, which could be perhaps be attributed to two reasons. Firstly, the earth’s ecosystem has undergone more rapid deterioration in the last 50 years than anytime before in human history and resulted in substantial and largely irreversible loss in diversity of life on earth. Secondly, the earth is hostage to the vested interests of the developed countries and now the emerging economies where the poor nations are silent sufferers.
Former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland had so ably expressed the sustainable development paradigm nearly a quarter-century ago as: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The combined effect of the above two factors on Earth’s environments, sadly, is now rendering that worthy objective unattainable. Meanwhile, the growing perception that the UN is incompetent in running international processes is disheartening.
According to the United Nations Population Development report, the world population is expected to increase to 8.3 billion in 2032. Developing countries are expected to grow nearly seven times faster than developed countries. Life expectancy and median age will improve universally as healthcare standards go up. Increased populations produce middle-class consumers for developed countries, but by 2050, the earth will need to produce 70 percent more food amid soaring food and oil prices. In short, the economists and environmentalists the world over agree that the planet cannot sustain ever-increasing levels of consumption based on existing models of industrial production.
Technology diffusion is another double edged sword. In the past it took 52 years for five percent of the world’s population to adopt a new technology and another 13 years to reach the 25 percent mark. But between 1975 and 2000, it took an average of just three years from five percent to the 25-percent level. As technology adoption accelerates globally and innovation cycles shorten, we are likely to see newer and better products at shorter intervals on the plus side, but the downside is an incalculable cost of the trampling of the earth’s habitat.
The few things on which world leaders agreed in Rio+20 were a proposal to conserve fish stocks in international waters, a plan to strengthen the UNEP, and a suggestion that the world might develop a series of “sustainable development goals” to replace the surprisingly successful Millennium Development Goals when they run out in 2015. President Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel’s absence precluded any firm commitments on funding for poorer nations to put their economies on the green track. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s report to the summit about measures adopted by 50 cities to cut down 248 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions was a breath of fresh air which many hoped would set a trend for the future.
The organisers had flooded the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer on the precipitous peak of Corcovado mountain in beautiful Rio de Janeiro with green light at night, but it seems that was the only thing green about this summit. As far Pakistan, it is not known where it is on sustainable development governance practices, if indeed it is anywhere on it. In our degrading natural habitat, and environments, there is a dire need to get back on course to living within the ecological limits of our natural systems while integrating equity in all activities of economic and social development.
As the UN secretary general remarked: “Nature does not negotiate with human beings. Nature does not wait.” Preserving Pakistan’s ecology is no more an option; it is oxygen, for now and the future.
The writer is a retired vice admiral. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org