09 Feb 2012: Opinion

On the Road Back to Rio,
Green Direction Has Been Lost

Twenty years ago, an historic environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro produced groundbreaking treaties and high hopes that pressing issues would be addressed. But as organizers prepare for the Rio+20 conference in June, there is little on the agenda to suggest any substantive action will be taken.

by fred pearce

It is easy to be cynical. Back in 1992, more than 100 world leaders, including George H.W. Bush, showed up for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was a two-week mega-event that attracted huge attention, highlighted by the signing of two groundbreaking treaties on climate change and biodiversity and grand declarations about creating a future green and equitable world.

To put it mildly, the subsequent two decades have not lived up to the promises. George W. Bush effectively broke the climate treaty signed by his father, refusing to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol. Emissions have soared, resource plundering has intensified, nature is still on the retreat, the world has become less equitable, and climate change has gone from distant prospect to frightening reality. While the population bomb may be being defused, the consumption bomb is primed to destroy us all.

The 1992 Rio summit’s aspirations were left in the hands of a new body: the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). You have probably never heard of it. That’s not a good sign, since the commission is now in charge of a new event, Rio+20, which is being billed as the next step in making the planet fit for future generations.

Rio+20 will be held in the Brazilian megacity this June. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the hearts of our leaders are not in this. It will last for
The truth is we have gone backwards in the last two decades.
just three days (June 20-22), rather than the 14 days of its predecessor. President Obama isn’t going. The organizers are so scared nobody of note will turn up that, when they learned a few months ago that the event would clash with Britain and its former empire celebrating Queen Elizabeth's diamond jubilee, they postponed the summit for a week.

It probably won’t help much. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron refused to take the hint and show any signs that he might attend.

It has to be said that maybe Cameron is right. The “zero draft text” (don’t you just love UN-speak?) issued by the UNCSD at the end of January suggests leaders will not be asked to sign on to anything of substance that was not in the original Rio declaration 20 years ago. There will be no new treaties — plenty of pious words, but no action plan.

It is fine and good to call for a “green economy,” of course. But as the Green Economy Coalition — a grouping of NGOs, research institutes, UN organizations, businesses and trade unions — puts it, the text fails to address the fundamental issues involved in achieving it. “How are we going to kick-start the finance of a green and fair economy?,” the coalition asked in a statement issued last month. “How can we ensure the poorest benefit?... How will a green economy improve the management of our natural world?”

Many Western politicians may feel that the current economic crisis means that 2012 is not a good time to address environmental issues. But the counterargument is that rapacious use of the world’s natural resources over the past 20 years is one reason we got into this mess — causing sharp rises in commodity prices, for instance — and that “green economics” is the only long-term solution.

The truth is that we have gone backwards in the past two decades. The growing power of big developing nations like China and Brazil is often putting the international agenda on sustainability into reverse. Their governments see even current weak international guidelines on social and
We need new environmental governance. It’s time to reboot the Rio+20 summit agenda.
environmental standards in development projects, such as those developed by the World Bank, as undermining their national sovereignty and impeding economic development, rather than enhancing and sustaining them.

As a result, notes Andy White, coordinator of the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative, “there is nothing in the draft Rio+20 text that even mentions the rights of poor people to their land and their forests, even though we know they are far better custodians of nature than governments or private corporations.”

Tinkering with business as usual is not enough. What is needed is new environmental governance for a crowded planet running on empty. It is time to reboot the Rio+20 summit agenda.

The world’s environmental scientists are doing their best. They know best how the planet’s life support systems have deteriorated since 1992 and the imminent dangers of runaway ecological and climatic disaster.

The International Council for Science (ICSU), which represents science bodies in 140 countries including the U.S. National Academy of Science, has organized a meeting in London in March to put pressure on the politicians to get real in Rio. The event, Planet Under Pressure, is one of the formal pre-Rio preparatory meetings, and it won’t pull its punches.

The starting point for the scientists, says ICSU, is that “stark increases in natural disasters, food and water security problems, and biodiversity loss are just part of the evidence that humanity may be crossing planetary boundaries and approaching dangerous tipping points.”

The March conference will hear, for instance, how researchers are developing early warning systems to spot those approaching tipping points. If such systems had been in place 40 years ago, they might have warned of the sudden emergence of the ozone hole over Antarctica. A decade ago, they might have predicted the collapse of Arctic sea ice. Next up could be the
We need something like a UN environmental security council to drag us back from the tipping points.
explosive growth of nitrogen-gorged “dead zones” in the oceans, or runaway emissions of methane from melting permafrost.

But the scientists don’t just want to predict disasters. They want to stop them. To do that, they will insist that politicians have to be wrenched from their comfort zones. New priorities will require new institutions and new actors. Frank Biermann of the Free University Amsterdam, who heads ICSU’s Earth System Governance Project, will tell the conference that incremental steps will not be sufficient and that “we have to reorient and restructure our national and international institutions.”

We need, he says, a “constitutional moment... akin to the major transformative shift after 1945 that led to the establishment of the United Nations and other international organizations,” like the World Bank. At the very least we need something like a UN environmental security council — with real muscle to call the big polluters, ecosystem trashers, and resource plunderers to account and to drag us back from those tipping points.

Climate change will affect most people’s lives most dramatically through changes to the water cycle, with wet areas set to become wetter and dry areas drier. So, to take one specific recommendation, the scientists want Rio+20 to pledge a new system of global water governance that would be charged with protecting international rivers for downstream users and maintaining irreplaceable underground water reserves for future generations.

Thankfully — for they do not always do this — the scientists have embraced a democratic vision that wants the environment to work for people. The new environmental governance, ICSU says, needs to build greater
Rio+20 needs to give teeth to its predecessor’s vague promises about sustainable development.
resilience for humans to survive what is almost certainly looming, especially for the poorest, who need protection from climate change, food shortages, natural disasters, and failed states. That means developing crops that are more drought tolerant, helping poor communities prudently harvest forests and other ecosystems for their own day-to-day needs, and ensuring that communities are better protected against floods and other natural disasters.

Other independent researchers take a similar view about the need for Rio+20 to give teeth to its predecessor’s vague promises about sustainable development. Alex Evans of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, a co-founder of globaldashboard.org, says Rio+20 needs to address three fundamental challenges. The first is the greening of growth, especially in emerging economies — “not because they have the greatest responsibility, but because they have the greatest opportunities to be laboratories of the future.”

The second is creating greater equity in a world of growing tensions over access to energy, land, water, and the diminishing “carbon space” in the atmosphere if we are successfully to tackle climate change. The third is building resilience to inevitable shocks, whether from crossing thresholds in natural systems or from market dysfunction, as food and other resources grow scarce.


Can ‘Climate-Smart’ Agriculture
Help Africa and the Planet?

Climate Smart Agriculture Africa
An idea promoted at the recent Durban talks is “climate-smart agriculture,” which could make crops less vulnerable to heat and drought and turn depleted soils into carbon sinks. The World Bank and African leaders back this approach, Fred Pearce writes, but some critics are skeptical that it will benefit small-scale African farmers.
Evans agrees this is unlikely to be achieved by existing world leaders alone. Nor should it be. The world’s seven billion people need to be asked what they think. That’s us. Evans proposes harnessing the Web for an instant “global outsourcing process” during the 100 days leading up to the summit. Starting with the scientists’ conference, those hundred days could rewrite the politicians’ flaccid agenda, and pick peoples’ delegates to attend on behalf of the real world.

The summit badly needs outside input. Right now, the official Rio+20 agenda and draft text show few signs that politicians are willing to go beyond the green-sounding rhetoric we heard from their predecessors in the same city two decades ago. It wasn’t enough then. It certainly isn’t enough now.

POSTED ON 09 Feb 2012 IN Biodiversity Climate Climate Policy & Politics Antarctica and the Arctic Central & South America 


Good read, Mr. Pearce... sad, though.

The evident change of language in global conservation legislation is really amusing. From the CBD's basic idea, the conservation of biodiversity (by calling spade a spade, for e.g. asking Americans to use public transport, asking Japanese to kill no whales, asking Indians and Chinese to bulldoze no more ecosystems or asking companies to sell no more GM crops), we have reached a stage when the only way to talk about the conservation of life on earth is to use the language of the market... trade, points, credits, etc., etc...(Excel sheets galore)... green market, economy, this and that... That is like talking about English in French to the French, dreaming to convince them in making English their National language (or the other way round).... and of course, mitigation, adaptation, resilience, all those words used when our shoulders droop and when we are sure that it's going to end, soon....CBD is neither a referee nor a player.... It is a cheer-leader convention... Adrenalin, gibberish and then blackout... Sad that there is no world leader who can actually stand up and say enough is enough with greening the market.

Can we actually start saving what's left with life on earth, than convening such Conferences? Anyone still not convinced that "extinction" actually means what it means? And, Good Heavens, why are we always bringing climate change in to all discussions, breakfast, lunch and dinner? Can't we see how ridiculous our lifestyles are? We are talking life, here... hello... anybody around?... life, you see...

Posted by Yathrikan Vyakulan on 09 Feb 2012

We can do this. Fred Pearce has done us a service, with his wake up call on a conference that is presently under the radar. With our "chronic problem of silos" in governments, UN agencies, and industry (and academia), the conference will be attended by ministers for the environment, who tend to be lower ranked cabinet ministers. So I propose shock treatment to the public at large and to the overseers forcing them to see the following. "This conference can lead onto positive ground by making it a cross cutting event to include well informed and powerful decision makers from "the silos" acting on a "turnaround agenda".

Top down and bottom up recognition of the need for active collaboration of leaders in science, polity, governance, "silos managers" -- taken together with many "success stories" on turnaround agendas, these can be employed to wake up decision makers who are understandably preoccupied with their immediate survival.

This from my 50+ years in the field.

Posted by Patrick Duffy on 09 Feb 2012

This side is good side. Its eduction side. Its very needed in this time.

Posted by Taz on 10 Feb 2012

Fred Pearce portrays the international community moving along the same old slow road to an unproductive UN gathering in Rio de Janeiro next June which will mark the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit. NRDC sees instead a Race to Rio for a different kind of Summit for a new generation. Harnessing forces just emerging in 1992, “Rio+20” could be equally historic and truly transformative. It could generate real actions, new mechanisms for accountability, and genuine hope that we can speed the transformation to a low-carbon green economy.

NRDC was very involved in the first Rio Summit; and we shared Pearce’s excitement that our presidents and prime ministers would indeed act on all of their hard and soft law promises to improve the quality of human lives while getting us off a path towards a increasingly crowded, polluted, and depleted planet. We agree that the Rio treaties, declarations, and plans have not delivered. While there are many indicators of progress that Pearce ignores, it is clear that pressures on our climate, water, and other life-supporting systems have grown substantially and widespread human poverty persists. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has warned, we are running out of time to avoid catastrophic failures if we do not move onto a more sustainable path.

Ten of thousands of people around the globe are now scrambling to prepare for the June 2012 Earth Summit. The Brazilians are planning for the largest UN event in history. They are expecting 150 presidents and prime ministers, including President Obama who still has not made a decision to go. They anticipate a total of some 50,000 participants, including many other top government, business, civil society leaders and notables.

We generally share Pearce’s lack of enthusiasm for the draft output document now being negotiated at the UN for adoption at the June Summit. There is little new or inspiring in it. He is absolutely right that we do need “new environmental governance for a crowded planet running on empty.” His proposal for a powerful new “UN environmental security council” is appealing, but not a real remedy. Even assuming we could get the agreement of all of the more than 190 governments to the concept, it would take years to get it established and up and running. And Pearce does not explain why this new international body would be any more effective than of the existing ones – or faster. Once again time is short.

What Pearce has overlooked is that Rio+20 could be first Summit to recognize and embrace what Thomas Friedman has called two of the most powerful forces of the 21st century –globalization and connectivity. The Rio+20 could produce a new form of governance better
reflecting the realities of our networked world. There appears to be a growing consensus that not only not countries, but also cities, communities, corporations, and civil society groups, should come to Rio with their own short-term, concrete pledges to take actions with measurable outcomes. Thousands of such actions addressing jobs, climate and energy, oceans, governance, and other sustainability goals could be the major substantive and very worthwhile result of Rio+20.

The Summit document under negotiation now calls for the UN Secretary General to establish a compendium of such non-globally-negotiated commitments – with support from the U.S., Brazil, and others. NRDC has been advocating the use of state-of-the-art information technologies to enable citizens around the world to see these pledges, monitor their progress, and hold those making promises accountable. Imagine if this were the first Summit ever where the leaders not only signed a document, but launched a website. This “cloud of commitments” would allow governments, institutions, organizations, and individuals people to see and be inspired by the thousands of actions underway around the world. It would enable us to pinpoint where there are problems of ambition and implementation so we can focus scarce resources to provide encouragement and if need be to apply pressure.

Finally, we totally agree with Pearce that the summit badly needs outside input. As a number of UN officials have said, if we are going to deal with climate change and other sustainability challenges, it is going to take a revolution or a transformation. That will not happen unless civil society demands that our leaders do more than make vague promises about far off outcomes. We have seen how connectivity has empowered people, particularly young people, to take action against intolerable situations. Now it is time for them to use this power to demand their leaders stop talking and start acting to improve prospects for the future and to protect our planetary home.

S. Jacob Scherr is Director, Global Strategy and Advocacy, Natural Resources Defense Council

Posted by S. Jacob Scherr on 10 Feb 2012

Bravo! We still have time to make Rio+20 an event that will yield positive outcomes. As a professor I remember my first encounter with the term "sustainable development" as I was cruising Gopher hosted at the U of Minn. at the amazing speed of 300 baud some 22 years ago. Much has happened with connectivity and the staying power of three generational thinking has remained at the heart of the SD paradigm. I am a Boomer, for two decades I taught Gen Xers, and now I am in a narrative with the Millenniums. We are SD's three generations. I am fighting the futility of the cultural war rhetoric gone amuck in this Road to the White House campaign in the US. To that end, I am using my experiences with creating large scale simulations about global issues and am in conversations with stakeholders connected to UNCSD trying to develop the agenda missing in both the Occupy Movement and to redirect the anger of feeling excluded in the Tea Party to reach common ground as Speaker Boehner is so fond of uttering.

I am re-creating a CSD simulation that I launched in Brazil in 2006 with a team of schools for the Rio+20 Summit. I will gladly share the background guide for Rio+20 as it becomes available. We at Pace University in Pleasantville NY are gathering schools in the Hudson and Mohawk Valley to launch a Rio+20 simulation on April 20th to produce resolutions that we will then share with schools globally using social media. Our goal globally is to generate a critical voice using social media for young professionals that participants in Rio can turn to for support during the conference. Our goal locally is to lobby our elected officials to put pressure on members of Congress to persuade President Obama to appear in Rio and become a world leader towards a sustainable future NOW.

Thank you for this clarion call for activism and let's remain focused on the goal of making Rio+20 the event is needs to be.

Posted by Gregory Julian Ph.D. on 10 Feb 2012

Reading this article, I am reminded of a quote by author Wayne Dyer, “You cannot fix a problem by learning more about it.” Yet this is what Pearce seems to be trying to do. Through his entire catalogue of the problems of Rio+20, Pearce offers only two solutions. The first is that “what is needed is new environmental governance for a crowded planet running on empty." The second is a recommendation for “something like a UN environmental security council.” Pearce presents no advice or guidance about how to achieve these goals, and consequently they become (as he views the Rio+20 outcome) “plenty of pious words, but no action plan.” While Pearce claims that “President Obama isn’t going”, this is only a half-truth. President Obama has not yet committed to attend Rio, just as he did not commit to attend the Copenhagen summit until a few days before the event. I am hopeful that President Obama will attend, and I believe he will be encouraged by the recent announcement from Brazil that 30 Heads of State have committed to attending Rio, including China, Germany, and India.

If anything can be learned from Rio 1992, it is that a worldwide treaty system with lofty, long-term goals is unenforceable and unsustainable. Pearce is absolutely right that we do need “new environmental governance for a crowded planet running on empty.” However, his idea of a “UN environmental security council”, even if plausible, would take years to institutionalize and implement, years that we simply do not have. We need action now. We need short-term, concrete goals and most importantly we need to establish proper accountability mechanisms to ensure those goals are actually achieved. As Sha Zukang, Secretariat of Rio+20, stated in a recent Rio+20 meeting, “What we agree to in June and in the years ahead is our promise to the world. And we must honor that promise.”

We also have unique resources available to us that we did not have in 1992. The information technology revolution and the advent of social media present tremendous opportunities to encourage participation in this process, especially from young people who stand to benefit most.

Pearce states that “it is easy to be cynical.” I would agree. It is far easier to focus on the problems than on finding solutions. But this is not a time for problems. This is a time for solutions, and Rio presents a unique opportunity for the world to come together and achieve those solutions. As Jacques Cousteau put it, “If we were logical, the future would be bleak, indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.” Cynicism will get us nowhere. What we need is optimism, hope, and the courage to do what is necessary to protect ourselves and our planet.

Posted by WeNeedSolutions on 10 Feb 2012

I think we know the problem and many of us are working on the solutions. Government and industry support would be nice, but I for one am not holding my breath for that to happen. Really it is time to just roll up the sleeves and do your part, it is hard but not complicated. Change is happening in ways that are not big media events. I would point to solar panels for domestic hot water and electricity, local food movements, retrofit products and energy conservation as gaining a lot of ground.

Posted by Christopher Pratt on 11 Feb 2012

Very thought provoking article on Sustainable Development. Yes. Action should succeed all environment meets at Global level.

Dr. A. Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 11 Feb 2012

"The population bomb has been defused."

Really??? I beg to differ. http://bit.ly/AEXeNv

In fact, uncontrolled population growth (all fantasies of "per capita" redistribution aside) remains the real hockey stick whose figures require no jiggering.

Environmentalists, by hanging their entire agenda on a fail-sure aim of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, a trace gas that remains essential to plant growth and is pumped into greenhouses to raise yields, environmentalists have, sadly, hung themselves out to dry and degraded their credibility in all issues of substance.

Just ask Europeans, in the grip of a historically cold winter, how they feel about their carbon emissions right now.

Perhaps, just perhaps.... It's the sun, stupid.

Posted by sas on 12 Feb 2012

Thanks for this article, which provides a helpful backgrounder on “Rio+20”, a helpful overview of important opportunities, and a heartfelt and sincere “call to action”. While many people may be, rightfully, concentrating on local and regional initiatives, there is always hope that momentum can come from “high places” — and if it does such momentum can be a powerful force for good.

Regarding “The summit badly needs outside input” — much agreement here — and rather than calling it a “global outsourcing process”, why not call it “Global Visioning for Earth Summit 2012”… and encourage people to “Please send your suggestions for going beyond ‘green sounding rhetoric’ and having a part of the summit output be a ‘highlight reel’ of inspiring initiatives which can be adopted by local and regional organizations”.

Some people may not know, but there has already been an "asking for ideas" for "Rio+20" (a formal request as part of the efforts of many people to build an inspiring agenda). I saw a request for "Compilation Document Submissions" for "Earth Summit 2012" (there may have been many other requests) on Twitter, and I sent in a document titled "A Four Page of The IPCR Initiative”. If readers “google” that title, and “Earth Summit 2012”, they can see where that document, and other “Compilation” documents, were posted. This article “On the road back…” is an appeal for more substantive input, from many more “stakeholders”. One idea: remember how the Guardian newspaper organized a joint editorial leading up to the Copenhagen summit… 56 newspapers in support of a common appeal. There is a need for people to “keep trying”, in whatever corner of the issues they are working in.

[A brief aside: As part of having had input accepted to the “Compilation Document”, I received the following email inviting me to a “Stakeholders Forum” in Nairobi, Kenya…”Dear Stefan: Please find attached, your letter of invitation to UNEP's Thirteenth Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum (GMGSF.13), to be held from 18-19 February 2012, in Nairobi, Kenya. Thank-you and warmest regards for the new year. The Major Groups and Stakeholders Branch United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) P.O. 30552 Nairobi, Kenya. “ (Note: I hardly travel at all these days, but some people might be interested to know about these details, which are a part of the lead-up to “Rio+20”.)]

For my part in the “keep trying” category, I offer to Fred Pearce, “Earth Summit 2012”, and anyone else who might find it useful, a new IPCR document titled “Calling ‘the better angels of our nature’: A Multi-Angle View of the Debt Crises” (January 2012, 398 pages) — accessible for free from the homepage of The Interfaith Peacebuilding and Community Revitalization (IPCR) Initiative website, at http://www.ipcri.net/

Posted by Stefan Pasti on 15 Feb 2012

Consumerism is the key factor responsible for unsustainable use of natural resources and increase of solid, liquid and gaseous pollutants. So there is need of taking into consideration of environmental cost while fixing the price. It is seen that a 50yrold banyan tree provide environmental benefit interms of production of oxygen, sequesration of carbon dioxide, polluting gas, filtering dust, conserving moisture, refuse of birds and insect etc. worth $700000. The sustainablle use of natural resources of the planet should be the responsibility of citizen of the planet. So the life style of citizen to be modified accordingly. There is need a understanding among family of nation about the need for the shake of our future generation.

Posted by Asesh Lahiri on 19 Feb 2012

And, meanwhile, here is what has been and is happening in Brazil:



Posted by Lou Gold on 20 Feb 2012

Jillian, I think that most of the audience had samilir hopes to yours. It wasn't clear to me whether Pearce thought he had a good argument that we should eat foreign grown food in many cases or just wanted to make the point that we need to be more nuanced in decision making than simply adopting a buy local stance. I felt that he didn't even make a good argument for the second case, which was disappointing.

Posted by Hiroto on 29 Apr 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He reported on the Cancun conference for New Scientist magazine, where he serves as environmental consultant. He is the author of numerous books, including When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence and The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future. In earlier articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about global climate talks after Copenhagen and the fallout from the “Climategate” controversy.



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