Monday, April 30, 2012

On the way to Rio+20

Written by Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, 29 April 2012, Fine p. 3

‘Rio+20’ is increasingly making news in international media, but not in the magnitude expected by the environmental movement. It is somewhat dwarfed by other international issues that make headlines in the media. Apart from the occasional news item and the random event, most ordinary Sri Lankans who are not environmental enthusiasts seem unaware of what Rio+20 is.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which is to be held from June 20 to 22 this year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is popularly known as Rio+20. This summit marks the 20th anniversary of the first Rio Summit, which was held in 1992 and is also known as the Earth Summit. Environment as a topic of discussion was at its peak at that time. Hence the 1992 summit was a significant event in the modern environmental conservation movement resulting in various initiatives including the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the Agenda 21, which could be mentioned as the action plan towards sustainable development. In brief the concept of sustainable development was widely accepted in this summit and thereafter. Apart from these two agreements, other important treaties on biodiversity and climate change were opened for signature during the summit.

It has been 20 years since the 1992 Earth Summit. Has the world become a better place since? This is an important question. It is an ideal time for taking stock or reviewing the state of the world’s environment and what we have done to the environment and what has taken place during the last two decades. The summit is expected to attract a large number of world leaders, policymakers, scientists and environmentalists to the Brazilian city. It is expected to be the largest environmental summit since the 1992 Earth Summit.

Progress since 1992

Various reports published during the recent past by a range of global institutions give mixed opinions. There is a development towards sustainability, but it is noticeably slow. There is positive development in certain sectors while some sectors are lagging behind or not seeing any progress towards sustainability. One of the success stories is the global effort to end the use of ozone depleting substances and protect the ozone layer. However, the effort to combat climate change is lagging behind the global agenda without any significant progress. Over consumption, which is the root cause of many environmental crises, has been growing in many countries and regions. Recent research has also pointed that there is a rapid change of consumption patterns in fast developing countries. ‘Western type’ consumption patterns are emerging with the rapid economic boom in the countries like China.

Meanwhile, a positive impact in some sectors is largely seen in developed countries, while developing nations are yet to get on to the cleaner tract. For instance deforestation in many of the developed nations has reversed, while it is still a pressing matter in a large number of developing countries. Industrial countries lead in air pollution control, clean energy while many of the poor countries are yet to implement these measures. The main challenge faced by developing nations is the lack of funds as well as the technology.

However the recent economic crisis, which has been affecting the entire World since 2008 and the resulting efforts to revitalize troubled economies seem to have a detrimental effect on the global thrust towards a better environment. This is the same for both developed as well as developing nations, especially in the case of highly affected economies. This is clearly indicated by the lack of political will in many world leaders in areas like reducing green house gas emissions, clean energy and other action in mitigating climate change.

Key issues at Rio+20

Rio+20 conference is to be staged in such a backdrop. There are two major themes and seven major areas of attention. One of the themes is the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. The second theme is the institutional framework for sustainable development. The seven major areas, which are identified as priority are decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.

Out of these, green economy is a concept of utmost importance that surfaced recently. In simple terms, it focuses on the economy and ways of making it green or environmental friendly. The concept has been somewhat widely discussed and a considerable amount of research and reports been compiled during the last few years. Green economy is identified as a way towards sustainable development.

There is a draft of a treaty (called the zero draft) which is expected to be finalized during the conference, which has been in discussion since January. There are certain positive aspects in this draft treaty as well as areas that need more attention and alterations, are all of which will be taken up for discussion at the international meetings.

What will Rio+20 accomplish?

Rio+20 conference is often mentioned as a chance to revive the conservation movement as well as the sustainable development concept. The question is whether the public or the interested groups of the World can lobby and convince their leaders (who are troubled by more serious issues, in their sense) to have some concrete outcome at Rio – with a legally binding treaty. However for this there should be a strong political will among the policymakers of the World, which unfortunately is not seen at the moment. Although it is painful for many of us, it is hard to expect a dramatic turning point from the forthcoming summit.

What can happen at Rio de Janeiro in June? Prof. Robert Costanza of Portland State University in Oregon provided a possible answer for this question in a recent opinion piece to Al Jazeera website. He said, that “Rio+20 could be the trigger. Or it may not. We may have to wait for deeper crises, for a more severe collapse. I hope not. While it is not wise to raise expectations too high, it is also not wise to give up hope. Let us hope for the best.”

Yes, let’s hope for the best.


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