by Kennedy Graham
Conventions on climate change, desertification, and biodiversity were adopted.
Forestry eluded us, but we issued ringing declarations about sustainable consumption and production.
And we called for ‘new concepts’ to measure the carrying capacity of the planet.
We – the international community of states – left Rio in 1992 thinking that we had laid the basis for future action to address these daunting problems.
Twenty years is a long and a short time.
It’s long enough to have followed through with effective action – something we’ve failed to do, as the recent WWF report laid bare.
It’s too short, it seems, for our international institutions and national mind-sets to transform into legitimate global decision-making.
And it’s long enough for the planet’s continuing degradation and climate instability to become apparent, to the intensifying alarm of the scientific community.
UNEP’s latest report, released last week, advises humanity thus: Earth’s environmental systems “are being pushed beyond their biophysical limits”, beyond which loom sudden, irreversible and potentially catastrophic changes:
“As human pressures on the earth … accelerate, several critical global, regional and local thresholds are close or have been exceeded. … Once these have been passed, abrupt and possibly irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet are likely to occur, with significant adverse implications for human wellbeing.”
Today, we have effectively lost the intervening time – the two critical decades.
On climate change, our global emissions keep increasing. The Kyoto Protocol – confined to some 17% of global emissions, designed to shave 5.2% off that, timed to kick in only 16 to 20 years after Rio – was palpably inadequate. It was intended only as a precursor to a global agreement – but this has yet to be negotiated.
Biodiversity loss continues, as does desertification. We still have no forestry agreement.
Human population, despite the Cairo Conference of ’94, continues to burgeon.
The global challenges confronting humanity today are actually more daunting now than back then.
And, as UNEP’s Achim Steiner says:
“Once the tipping-point occurs, you don’t wake up the next morning and say: ‘This is terrible, can we change it?’ That is the whole essence of these thresholds. We are condemning people to not having the choice any more”.
Well, yes. So. We assemble next week, back in Rio, geared up to review what we have done since, and preview what we might do from now.
Perhaps the mind-set is changing? Very few now query climate change. We are all getting worried, very worried, about the potential for ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. All want a switch to a low-carbon economy, even as we argue over how to attain it. And at last, we are recognising that our institutions need to be beefed up.
Rio + 20 will address two major themes – the ‘green economy’ and the ‘institutional framework for sustainable development’. Consideration will be given to a Sustainable Development Council, to strengthening the UN’s Environment Programme, to establish an Ombudsman for Future Generations. ‘Priority’ will be given to food security, water, energy, oceans, climate change, forests, biodiversity, land and deserts, mountains, chemicals and waste.
A set of ‘global Sustainable Development Goals’ may be adopted – brilliantly overriding the Millennium Development Goals set in 2000. The limitations of GDP and the need to adopt new indicators of well-being may be acknowledged.
Enough? Hell no.
It is the moment for political will, for changing the mind-set, for strengthening the institutions.
Let’s see how we do. ‘We’ means humanity. ‘We’ includes New Zealand. Shame NZ Prime Minister John Key is staying away, with no appetite for grim challenge. The fate of the Earth is off his agenda, but the other 115 or so leaders will decide. They will decide for him – and so for us.
No need for tears yet. Not just yet. But the challenge is immense.