The United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development or the Earth Summit at its debut in 1992 had a twelve year old grab the attention of world leaders. This child became known as “the girl who silenced the world for five minutes,” her words filled with passion, bringing some of those listening to tears. To a gathering of world leaders, some 108 countries had been represented by their heads of state such as US President George Bush Sr. and Canada's P.M. Brian Mulroney, she said, “We've come 5000 miles to tell you adults you must change your ways.”
Fast forward to 2012 the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development or as it was called RIO+20 had no child to stop the world instead glamour was used to sell the concept to the young and inspire them to action. Prior to the Earth Summit several other events were held such as the UNEP Green Nations Fest. Ambassadors for the UNEP, supermodel Gisele and actor Don Cheadle (best known by the young for his Iron Man movie) came to encourage more people to take part in World Environment Day and promise to plant trees. As it was announced some 50,000 new trees were promised to be planted in Brazil, with the first in front of cameras and an adoring crowd planted by Gisele. For the sceptic the question remains, who is really going to keep an official count of the number of trees that will be planted and verified? In a country where deforestation is an acute problem this public gesture looked good on camera.
It has been weeks since the end of RIO+20 and the world stage is preoccupied with a new event, the 'Green' Olympics, perhaps it is the best time to take a look at the Rio Earth Summit and our need for public spectacles such as these gatherings. It is not scepticism but a need for reality that is the motivator now that the publicity has died down and Gisele is off to another fashion shoot, and the other stars and personalities crowding the pages of gossip magazines.
The United Nations Environmental Program, the same UNEP that hosted tree-huggers for World Environment Day, issued a dire warning when it released its Global Environment Outlook. It said “the world continues to speed down an unsustainable path despite over 500 international agreed goals and objectives to support the sustainable management of the environment and improve human well-being.” Data compiled by the UNEP shows that water quality and access to clean water still is the most important issue for many countries, and by 2015 more than 600 million people will lack access to safe drinking water. Water is a basic ingredient to human survival and these statistics are alarming.
Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Co-ordinator for the Rio Earth Summit had said, “We have failed. We have not properly maintained the issue of sustainable development as a way of living, doing business. That is the overall reason why we have not made the kind of progress that we should have.” Thompson said that the Rio conference is hoped to be a “transforming moment” (Connie Watson CBC news, UNEP report). Yet unlike the first Earth Summit of 1992 there will be no agreements that will legally bind countries to meet any environmental targets. This time it is a gentler RIO+20 where countries will be asked to work voluntarily to reach targets they set for themselves. How much of a “transforming moment” was it really when it was all over?
In 1992 climate change was a new concept, today it is the basis of argument. Simply put many argue that Earth is simply going through changes and that the notion of climate change is merely a tool of the alarmists'. A recent poll in June conducted by the Washington Post and Stanford University showed that concern over climate change dropped from 33% to a low 18% as the number one environmental issue. Climate change is a hard sell in some ways even though we have enough changing around us to demand attention. The last decade was the warmest on record and in 2010 emissions from fossil fuels were at the highest level. “Under current models, greenhouse-gas emissions could double over the next 50 years, leading to a rise in global temperatures of three degrees Celsius or more by the end of the century UNEP said. The annual economic damage from climate change is estimated at one to two percent of world GDP by 2100 if temperatures increase by 2.5 C, it warned. The UN's target is 2 C.” (The Vancouver Sun 'Earth's Resources in Peril, UN Warns', Agence France – Presse June 8, 2012).
Still arguments will rage over the validity of science and those who have their own motivations will continue to point to historical evens as an explanation. Yet RIO+20 was not solely concerned with climate change. Instead it was an overall discussion on the sustainability of our Earth encompassing all facets of consumption, development and trade. Environmentalists from dozens of organizations had an opportunity to put their agendas forward, amongst organizations such as Prosperity Without Growth, UNCTAD and UN Global Compact, Christian Aid, World Wildlife Fund and so many more - all these interest groups looking for attention and all with their own views on what we need to safeguard our future.
RIO+20 was not only a meeting of government representatives, heads of state and NGO's, it was a set of conferences where corporate CEO's played the most important role. It is the business world that in fact has the power to bring about change and influence government policy. Whether it is the CEO's of Shell and BP with the development of Canada's oil sands, or Dow Chemicals and its production in Brazil or the mighty power of the world's stock exchanges with the ability to promote long-term sustainable investment in their markets, the will to change is in their hands.
To some this may be a frightening concept, that the true future of Earth rests in the hands of the few and the wealthy. Peter Bakker head of World Business Council for Sustainable Development had this to say in relation to the many various gatherings and sustainability initiatives around the world, “they don't even begin to make a dent in creating a more sustainable world.” He said that “Business has the technology, innovation, management skills and financial resources to help us lead us toward a more sustainable future, and mind you, business has the will to do this.” (the guardian,'RIO+20: the Earth Summit diaries' by Jo Confino).
Adding to Peter Bakker's sentiments on the power and will of global business, CEO's from the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (a network of sustainable banks), the Green Economy Coalition, and the Norwegian Forum for Environment and Development presented their proposals. Andrew Kroglund, Director of Information and Policy at the Norwegian Forum for Environment and Development said, “Reforming the financial system will require a range of enabling policies and cultural changes.” (the guardian, 'RIO+20: the Earth Summit diaries' by Jo Confino). It is hoped that these proposals will help create sustainable products, promote diversity to increase innovation, improve long-term sustainability reporting and discourage speculative activities with no social benefit. And not to forget a catchy new slogan, 'banking because the future matters.'
What is RIO+20 to be remembered for? It had no twelve year old child to silence the world or bring tears of emotion to our audience. After all we have had twenty years of maturity since the first Earth Summit of 1992. Today climate change is not a new concept with dire warnings, rather the basis for argument on its validity. We do have 'green' as a term or label of pride such as 'green' products and organically grown produce at the supermarkets, most costing double the usual price. Peter Bakker's CEO's can at least do their part for the 'Green' Economy with the purchase of these 'green' products which most of the ordinary folk cannot afford.
RIO+20 did bring celebrities such as Leonardo Di Caprio, Sir Richard Branson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and not to forget the opening guests such as Gisele and Don Cheadle, and hundreds of CEO's from around the world. US President Obama did not appear, nor did Canada's Prime Minister Harper or British P.M. David Cameron. Canada's Environment Minister Peter Kent was very happy with the lack of any firm commitments, he said “It does not have
unrealistic, inappropriate binding commitments, and that's a good thing.” (Heather Scoffield, The Canadian Press).
Was RIO+20 simply a carnival marking the twentieth anniversary of an event that brought global attention and commitment to our need to work together for the future of this Earth and for humanity as a whole? Was it an opportunity for ominous warnings as that by the UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon when he said, “If we really do not take firm actions, we may be heading towards the end – the end of our future.” Canadian environmental groups stayed away as did our prime minister, though international groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others made their voices heard.
Whether the opinion of RIO+20 is that of a failure or of a stepping stone for the future, the words of Cicero Lucena and John Geemer prior to the opening of the summit ring loud and clear. They speak of the true legacy of the Earth Summit of 1992 without the child or the emotion:
“Yet, two decades on, all the major scientific indicators continue to flash red. And sadly, it is now clear that a large part of the summit's riginal potential has been squandered. Since 2000 alone, forests equivalent in size to the land mass of Germany have been lost; 80% of the world's fish stocks have collapsed or are on the brink of collapse; and the Gobi desert is growing by roughly 10,000 square kilometres every year. The list of environmental pressures grow by the day, and there can be little doubt that the unsustainable use of natural resources will be the biggest challenge facing mankind in the 21st century. So why haven't we done better since 1992?” (the guardian, 'Why Rio failed in the past and how it can succeed this time). Senator Cicero Luccena is first Secretary of the Brazilian Senate and President of GLOBE Brazil. Lord Gummer is a former UK environment minister and president of GLOBE International.
Lasse Gustavsson of the WWF had this to say of RIO+20, “We don't need meaningless pages right now. What we need is a manual to save the world.” (the guardian, Jo Confino). RIO+20 produced a Lego manual and if anyone is familiar with one of those than you will understand just how much trouble we are in. Still there is the 11th Conference of Parties (COP11) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CCBD) in Hyderabad, India in October, and the 'Green' Olympics.
Whereas in 1992, a twelve year old Canadian girl stood before world leaders and said, “We've come 5000 miles to tell you adults you must change your ways,” now it is we the adults who have to motivate you, the young to adapt the knowledge and make a difference for our combined future.
Another child stopped the world and brought many to tears. Who can forget the little girl running in Vietnam burnt and in pain. The horror of war had no more an alarming depiction yet it did not stop war, nor the pain of children.
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