Erstellt am: 5. 6. 2012 - 14:52 Uhr
"We Are On A Suicidal Path"
"We are on a suicidal path and we need nothing less than a revolution," says Thomas Stelzer, Assistant Secretary-General at the United Nations told me. "We need a revolution of consumption and production patterns." According to Global Footprint Network’s calculations, we are now using the Earth’s resources at a rate that would take between 1.3 and 1.5 planets to sustainably support. We are seriously in the red.
The first plans for the revolution proposed by Stelzer are supposed to be drawn up at this month’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, held on the 20th anniversary of the original Rio Earth summit and dubbed Rio + 20. But will they be?
For a couple of heady weeks in the early 1990s many people really did believe that one mass international meeting in Brazil could directly change the world by resetting our relationship with nature and launching a new cleaner and fairer era. The conference addressed issues such as resource depletion, climate change, human rights, and labour rights and its central document, the Agenda 21 action plan, was hundreds of pages long and described itself as "the blueprint for the 21st century."
The undisputed star of the 1992 Earth Summit meeting was an earnest 12 year old environmentalist from Canada called Severn Suzuki who told the assembly which included 108 heads of states that she and her friends had raised money themselves to travel to the summit "to speak on behalf of the starving children around the world whose cries go unheard."
She decried the hole in the ozone layer and the poisoned rivers and the destruction of natural habitats: "I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet because they have nowhere left to go. We cannot afford to be not heard."
In a way, she was heard. The development charity Oxfam has described the Rio Earth Summit as "extraordinarily ambitious." The summit, far from being just another UN talk shop, garnered unprecedented media coverage for the issues of ecology and development and gave birth to some landmark agreements. The Forest Principles were agreed on, calling for countries that preserve their natural forests to receive extra development aid. The Convention of Biological Diversity was signed, as was the Climate Change Convention that would eventually lead to the Kyoto Protocol, the first international attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Even the USA signed up to the climate agreement, through President George H. W. Bush, who attended the conference in person and notoriously claimed that his country intended to be "the world's pre-eminent leader in protecting the global environment. We have been that for many years and will remain so." He added that environmental issues and development "can and should go hand in hand."
But, of course, the concrete measures didn’t follow the tone-setting words. Severn Susuki's dream of real change was not fulfilled. When he became president, George Bush junior made a mockery of his father's already highly dubious claim for pre-eminence in environmental protection by quickly withdrawing the US from the United Nations carbon emissions reduction program, the Kyoto Protocol. The climate talks have stalled ever since.
Emissions continue to soar, the planet is getting hotter, and scientists confirm that poor countries are already feeling the effect via unpredictable rainfall and changing seasons.
The biodiversity agreement, meanwhile, hasn't stopped rapid encroachment of fragile ecosystems and scientists have warned we might be on the brink of a 6th mass extinction - this one man-made. Forests continue to be burned and cleared for timber, soya fields and palm oil plantations. They are disappearing at the rate of 56 million acres a year. Rivers like the great Ganges and Yangtze are getting even filthier and more empty of life. As for the starving children? Well, they are still starving today in the Sahel. Indeed, one in seven of the world's population won't have enough to eat today.
Meanwhile desertification, which is driven by climate change threatens 8 billion acres of land worldwide, is making their future look even bleaker.
The world is not fairer, the gaps between rich and poor have widened and 20% of the global population consume over 80% of the world's resources.
The UN's Thomas Stelzer says addressing imbalance, that fundamental unfairness, should be a global priority. In the rich West we currently benefit from the imbalance, but, fairness aside, Stelzer says a more equitable model is in our interest. "When gaps and polarizations become unsustainable, the result is violence and insecurity and a dramatic fall in quality of life."
So it's time to go back to the drawing board and, 20 years on from the initial Earth Summit, 180 world leaders are headed back to Brazil on the 20th June and they'll be joined by 50,000 environmental activists, businessmen and development groups.
But will the "Rio+20" summit achieve anything meaningful at all? If the original summit raised hopes of the power of multinational consensus politics, that enthusiasm was all but killed by the train-crash of the climate talks in Copenhagen. Whereas the original summit lasted a full 2 weeks, this meeting will rush through the agenda in just 3 days. Cricket matches last longer, as did the British Queen's Diamond Jubilee.
This summit will be spared a US President boasting about his environmental record - Barack Obama won't even attend. Nor will German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron or representatives of the European Parliament.
Environmental activists fear a vague, airy-fairy, washed down consensus that won’t offend any of the 195 nations represented, with official obfuscations making sure there are enough loop-holes available to make sure no one has to really do anything. The lowest common denominator will determine the outcome. Environmentalists also fear that the issue of the green economy - using sustainability to promote growth – will override all other issues. It's a 4 trillion dollar year industry with plenty of vested interests. Will social concerns be side-lined? Anil Naidoo, from the Council of Canadians, has called it a "dangerous financialisation of nature." He is worried that the principle of the human right to water has been attacked.
The most likely outcome is a set of sustainable development goals. Based on the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals, these will be action plans to create greater global prosperity within the context of natural resource boundaries. It is however unlikely that these goals will be mandatory. Indeed it is unlikely that governments will be held to anything concrete at all.
Sustainability and development might seem to be on a collision course. We, among the richest billion people on this planet each, each consume 60 times the resources of a member of the poorest billion. As they catch up the competition for resources is going to be ever tighter. Nobel Peace Laureat Mohan Munasinghe told me that given that we are already basically using a planet and a half, we can't afford to raise the 2 billion poorest people out of poverty without seriously curtailing consumption elsewhere. He is calling for Millennium Consumption Goals to be adopted at Rio to rebalance the accounts. Binding constraints on consumption are likely to be even less of a hit with Western voters than austerity, yet Munasingue, the former Vice Chairman on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, insists that we can reduce our consumption and improve our quality of life.
Stelzer, who also says a Western reduction in consumption is unavoidable, says the two aims of development and sustainability can be allied to a degree: "The African farmer who has just 1.2 acres of land is aware of the importance of maintaining the productivity of that tiny patch of land. He wants to avoid any land degradation. But he needs to be taught how to do that." 26 million tons of topsoil is lost to erosion and pollution every year worldwide. Much of that could be remedied with greater investment in agriculture in developing countries.
As the meeting in Rio approaches there seems to be little political goodwill. Negotiators at the UN headquarters in New York trying to draw up an action plan had to plead for this extra week of negotiations, such are the rifts between rich and poor countries.
A Betrayal of Green Ideals
Perversely, as the deserts encroach into African farmers land, arable land on the continent has been bought by international corporations, taken away from the small scale farmers in so-called land-grabs and sometimes turned into plantations for bio-fuels to put in the engines of cars. Ruth Kelly, an economic and policy adviser at Oxfam, says an area of Africa the size of Germany has been dedicated to biofuel production: "We're outsourcing our desire to consume lots to countries that really can't afford to subsidise our consumption."
Yet rich countries, more interested in energy security than climate change, still trumpet biofuels as sustainable green fuel. If there is any one symbol of the betrayal of the original Rio conference's blueprint for a fairer world that, for me, is it.
At the recent Future Without Hunger conference, held in Vienna, I met an Archbishop who urges the world leaders travelling to Rio to see the challenges in an ethical context. Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, the President of Caritas Internationalis, told me: "It is necessary to change the hearts and then the minds of the world leaders. It is not possible to think that some of us have a right to live and others are destined to be excluded permanently by death. We need a growing consciousness that we are really only one humanity."