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Green expectations

No breakthroughs are likely in Rio. Can it still persuade nations, make a dent?

This week the United Nations is holding the Conference on Sustainable Development, hosted by the government of Brazil. It was 40 years ago that the UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, in which only two prime ministers, Indira Gandhi from India and Olof Palme from Sweden, participated. In 1992, 20 years later, the UN Conference on Environment and Development was held with much fanfare and amidst high expectations. That summit reached a significant agreement, giving birth to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the Convention on Biological Diversity was opened for signatures to signal a major redefinition of measures that would not encourage destruction of natural eco-regions and so-called uneconomic growth. Rio 1992 attracted 172 governments. Civil society also had a major presence on the occasion with an estimated 2,400 representatives of NGOs. For the first time, perhaps, a major international event also focused on local bodies, with several cities being recognised for their achievements in integrating environmental concerns with development.

Rio 2012 certainly has more modest goals and perhaps a lower level of expectations than Rio 1992. Among the subjects likely to get focused attention in Rio 2012 is the concept and practice of creating green economies across the globe. The secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, has also emphasised the attainment of sustainable energy for all. This consists of three elements — universal access to modern energy services, doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.

These actions are expected to provide significant benefits to society at large, including healthier economic growth, expanded social equity and a cleaner environment.

It would be unrealistic to expect that Rio 2012 will result in any revolutionary breakthroughs, but overall, the event could be a major turning point towards greener economic development and growth globally. This would have the potential for a significant departure from the process by which natural resources and ecosystems have been degraded or damaged in several parts of the world. Protecting the global commons is an essential pre-requisite for attaining sustainable development. In simple terms, the definition of sustainable development provided by the Brundtland Commission explains this concept clearly as that form of development which meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The interpretation of the word “needs” can, of course, vary. For instance, the essential needs of the world’s poorest, which deserve overriding priority, would be seen as very different from the needs of the middle class and the rich across the world.

The Rio Summit of 1992 established the Commission for Sustainable Development under the UN, but its effectiveness remains questionable. Also, as a follow up to Rio 1992, the UN organised the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, but in retrospect its achievements too remain questionable, even though it made a bold attempt to bring the private sector and civil society together. As a result, a very large number of so-called type-2 partnerships involving business and civil society were signed, but most of them faded into insignificance almost as soon as the ink on those agreements dried up.

Rio 2012 is being held largely with modest expectations, and several questions do arise with respect to the themes that would be developed there. At the beginning of this millennium, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed on by the UN’s member countries, with the clear intent of reducing poverty significantly by 2015. Rio 2012 may possibly come up with Sustainable Development Goals, which would be articulated and possibly accepted by the same countries. But it is not clear how these goals will mesh with the existing MDGs, which had precise, time-bound targets for specific actions at the global level. The concept of a green economy is also likely to be discussed and debated, but some countries are likely to hesitate in accepting this new pathway of growth and development, largely because of its underlying complexity, and also because some nations may feel that its universal imposition may impinge on their sovereignty and inhibit their capacity to develop in a manner chosen by their own citizens.

One major area that is sadly missing from the themes to be discussed in Rio is the subject of climate change. The impact of climate change is likely to exacerbate stresses that exist in the poorest regions of the world, and a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has revealed that the length, frequency, and/or intensity of warm spells or heat waves will increase over most land areas. It is also likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of heavy falls to total rainfall will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe. The losses from these, however, will vary from region to region. For instance, fatality rates and economic losses expressed as a proportion of gross domestic product are higher in developing countries. In the period from 1970 to 2008, over 95 per cent of deaths from natural disasters occurred in developing countries. Hence, to lose sight of actions required to deal with the challenge of climate change would run counter to the objectives of Rio 2012.

Actions that range from incremental steps to transformational changes are essential for reducing risk from climate extremes. Correspondingly, social, economic and environmental sustainability can be enhanced by disaster risk management and adaptation approaches. And the world needs to focus on options for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, because many impacts can be reduced, delayed or avoided by mitigation. Delayed emission reductions significantly increase the risk of more severe climate change impacts. It would, therefore, be important for all the world leaders and delegates meeting in Rio to ensure that the scientific facts related to climate change are kept clearly in focus while defining the agenda for sustainable development, green growth and sustainable energy for all. Human society is entitled to expect some change in thinking and direction in these areas of crucial importance to its future.

Tags: climate change, Rio+20, conference on sustainable development, Rio 2012, sustainable energy, clean environment

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