Global Pessimism Before Rio+20

Twenty years ago, the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro, a hugely important event in the history of global action on sustainability. The conference was attended by 108 heads of state and 2,400 representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A total of 172 governments participated. The summit called for a transformation in the way we live and brought the concept of sustainable development to the mainstream. Covering such issues such as climate change, biodiversity, toxic waste, alternative energy, public transportation, and water scarcity, the conference produced a comprehensive environmental action plan, Agenda 21.

Now 20 years later, the Rio+20 conference, a foll0w-up on the original summit, seeks to address many of the same issues and check in on progress. The conference identifies its two main themes as: “a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development.” Additionally, the conference identifies seven priority areas, including green jobs, sustainable energy, sustainable cities, food security, accessible water, ocean management, and disaster resiliency.

Like the first conference, Rio+20 is huge in scale. Described as, “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, it’s expected to draw upwards of 50,000 participants, with representatives from 180 countries. Yet unlike the original conference, many important world leaders are conspicuously missing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and U.S. President Barack Obama are all not attending the conference.

This apparent lack of enthusiasm on the part of the United States and Western Europe has been blamed on recent economic and politic turmoil. In an interview with The New York Times, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said: “Europe has been the great leader of environmental action but Europe is hardly functioning now.” Similarly, former head of the U.S. E.P.A. William K. Reilly told The New York Times: “The international community is going to have to learn never to hold a big global conference during an American presidential election year.”

Others have blamed the lack of western enthusiasm on a general loss of idealism. When President George H.W. Bush attended the Earth Summit in 1992, he was riding a wave of idealism following the end of the Cold War. John Vidal in The Guardian writes that, “the days of hope and idealism are over. Rich countries have little new to offer, and China, Brazil, India and other rapidly emerging economies are now in the development driving seat.”

Today, with sustainability firmly in the mainstream, we are left to consider the tangible environmental consequences of the 1992 conference. Despite increasing awareness, many do not see actual environmental progress being made. With record greenhouse emissions, melting polar icecaps, and a rapidly expanding global population, environmentalists argue that existing policies have done little to alter the trajectory of development and environmental degradation. In a pre-recorded video speech to the Rio+20 conference, Prince Charles stated, “Like a sleepwalker, we seem unable to wake up to the fact that so many of the catastrophic consequences of carrying on with ‘business-as-usual’ are bearing down on us faster than we think, already dragging many millions more people into poverty and dangerously weakening global food, water and energy security for the future.”

Some of the harshest criticism has come from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Director General Jim Leape, who condemned the recently released draft text on green global development, stating “despite a late night negotiating session, the revised text is a colossal failure of leadership and vision from diplomats. They should be embarrassed at their inability to find common ground on such a crucial issue.” He went on to criticize the text’s lack of hard language, concluding, “World leaders ‘recognized’ problems 20 years ago, and they’ve done little about them since. How long are we going to accept ‘we’ll look into it’ as a solution?”

Despite the prevailing negativity, some people are still hopeful that the conference will have a positive impact. In a green energy forum hosted by The Atlantic magazine, former head of the E.P.A . and recent climate change czarina Carol Browner acknowledged that the enthusiasm of twenty years ago simply no longer exists, though she still holds out hope that the conference will produce “measurable, concrete steps.” Furthermore, Browner was optimistic regarding the future of sustainable energy in general. She expressed that now is the time for the United States to support the nascent clean energy industry, discussing the ways smart environmental regulation can lead to innovation in new technologies and produce economic growth.

Still, the meeting does serve as a useful tool for keeping sustainable development high on the international agenda. And many countries do use these conferences as goal posts, deadlines for achieving significant environmental progress. As an example, just days before the meeting, Australia recently announced it had created the largest marine nature preserve in the world. If only the U.S. and European countries were able to make similarly grand commitments — either to finance developing countries’ efforts to improve their environment or to do more good in their own backyard.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: Australian Marine Preserve / Australian Geographic. Getty Images.

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