In his speech at the recent UN Rio+20 conference, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said there have been many achievements since the last one 20 years ago. Whilst the opportunities are great, he also stated so are the continued challenges. Two delegates shared their views of the conference with The Foreigner.
Rio1992 and Rio+20: What a difference 2 decades make
I started to write about the happenings at Rio+20 while sitting in one of its food courts. But, I realized I needed more time and distance to form my perspective and expectations about Rio+20. So, I decided to write this after a week at the world’s Second Earth Summit (what Rio+20 should have been called).
After a week at this conclave I came to realize I had fallen into a trap. When I first started to think about the Rio+20, I found myself comparing it to the conference of parties (COPs) of the various UN Conventions in general and more specifically those of the UNFCCC. These political conventions were created at the First Earth Summit (structure, function and expectations about outcomes).
My expectations for results were cautiously optimistic. We would see some advances in issues related to the three UN conventions on biodiversity, climate and desertification. My first judgments were harsh: no step-like sorely needed progress would be achieved; no action, talk only (nato); political posturing (blah, blah, blah); and a declaration by attending global leaders at the end calling for advances in saving species, capping carbon dioxide emissions and arresting land degradation, respectively. The Earth Summit’s platitudes would likely be similar to those made in earlier decades at other international conferences.
I was wrong. I came to realize I was comparing the proverbial apples and oranges, an EARTH SUMMIT of Leaders and an accounting of progress made over 20 years with the annual COPs where negotiators are trying, against all political and economic odds to hammer out a roadmap for the sustainability for the Planet (e.g., long term into the distant future). But an EARTH SUMMIT is NOT a COP. In theory Rio+20 is really a Conference of Humanity, a grandchild of the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. In other words, an Earth Summit of global leaders should only be compared with Stockholm and the Rio1992 Earth Summit.
The climate COPs are held each year by the UNFCCC’s Conference of Parties, 17 annual ones so far and the 18th is scheduled to be in Qatar. Negotiators from most countries meet on an uneven climate playing field to iron out different, often competing perspectives on how to prepare for and cope with climate change and its environmental and societal consequences.
The Earth Summit should not be viewed as the next COP-like meeting. It was – in my view – supposed to look back to assess progress since 1992 (as well as since the forgotten Stockholm conference) with regard to various aspects of human interactions with the environment. Its purpose was not to assess the progress in negotiations since the previous annual COP 17 in Durban, South Africa. People seem to be judging unknowingly the success or failure of the summit based on political progress since Durban.
There is no doubt that the key to arresting the continued global warming of the atmosphere (or to the biodiversity and desertification conventions) rests with political leaders and an urgent need for their collective will to act worldwide on the numerous creeping threats to humanity. But, an Earth Summit is not just a political meeting. It involves all other facets of society: companies, educators, disaster managers, students, in fact civil society. That is why it is important NOT to compare the Rio+20 to the COPs as the annual political events that they are.
Looking back to the state of the Planet’s environment of 1992 or 1972, concern about the state of the Planet is at an all-time exponential high. There are many examples of this: For example, Wangari Mathaai, an environmental activity in Kenya was awarded a Nobel Prize (there is no Nobel Prize yet specifically for the environment). In 2007, the IPCC process, as one drawing recognition to worldwide growing concern about the consequences of a warming atmosphere, received the recognition of the Nobel Committee in 2007.
An Excel spreadsheet delineating progress to a healthier interaction of societies and their natural environments would be impressive. Concern expressed in different ways and at different rates has shown up in corporations (greenwashing notwithstanding), in civil society (convening their parallel peoples’ summits), the awakening and empowering of youth (over half of the earth’s population today). In cities large and small (institutionalizing recycling, smart energy use, carbon-reducing programs), in schools from kindergartens to universities (bringing environmental into their lesson plans), governments (shifts to alternative energies), and so forth. Concepts like sustainability, resilience, adaptation, green economy, zero carbon society are not commonly used, even by civil society and not just academics.
So in this regard, Earth Summit is a milestone conference to take stock of successes and to lay out an “Agenda21 + 40” (in 2032). What is missing though, even with the progress that really has been made in awareness and in action, are more aggressive steps toward poverty reduction, toward disaster risk reduction and in electing leaders who have the backbone to make hard decisions the benefits of which will occur well beyond their time in office.
American humorist Will Rogers once wrote, “Even if you are on the right track, you will be run over if you are not going fast enough.” When it comes to coping with human induced climate change, the political leaders are not yet aware that there is a faster train approaching humanity’s chances for sustainability. Rio+40 will likely be too late for many of the vulnerable, people and countries.
We have identified many tipping points for environmental change but have yet to identify the tipping point for policy makers. Even the notion, that “There is no Planet B” does not seem to raise a political eyebrow.
Suggestions, please, and soon!
Dr. Michael H. Glantz, Director of CCB (Consortium for Capacity Building), University of Colorado – Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA.
As the Rio+20 Earth Summit wraps up, there is no shortcoming of depressing news covering headlines. We are faced with yet another failed attempt at an international agreement for action to deal with the climate crisis.
It should come as no surprise that the product of the summit, a draft text for green global development, lacks meaningful and clearly defined goals and steps for action. However, it is easy to find hope and inspiration by focusing on the incredible energy and efforts of the youth activists that attended the summit.
These young people from around the world tirelessly fight to have their voices heard and are committed to pushing for real solutions, calling for ambitious action from world leaders, and ensuring that the voices of those most affected by climatic and environmental changes are heard.
They demanded attention at the Earth Summit by participating in events such as the People’s Plenary. Their message was simple: protect the people on the frontlines of climate change, not the big corporate polluters.
Although there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the international climate negotiations tunnel, my faith and hope lies with the young people who I know will not give up!
Joanna Petrasek MacDonald, Climate Change Activist and Researcher at Climate Change Adaptation Research Group, McGill University.
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