In 1992, the United Nations organized a conference called the Earth Summit (officially known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) in Rio De Jenerio of Brazil. The conference, attended by 187 countries, adopted an ambitious blueprint called Agenda 21 to set a high trajectory for sustainable development while taking care of the environment. This conference also led to the establishment of other crucial conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Twenty years later, world leaders and governments from over 190 countries are meeting in Rio yet again to evaluate the past achievements and decide on the future course. The gathering is called the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, popularly known as Rio+20. But will this conference, being organized in the midst of a global economic crisis, meet the expectations of the people?
The Earth Summit that was expected to spur economic growth, address poverty and take care of the ecology at the same time did not deliver much. If we review the progress in the last twenty years since1992, we are just where we started. There is rampant poverty worldwide—millions of people continue to suffer from hunger, malnutrition, water and sanitation crisis, diseases and illiteracy, not to mention the proliferating violence around the globe.
Humans are degrading the environment at an unprecedented rate, ushering in ecological imbalance. Moreover, their actions have caused the biggest environmental challenge in history—climate change, which scientists term as the greatest threat to our existence. Our natural resources are depleting at a rate that is non-reversible. As the global population shoots past 7 billion, there is much stress on natural resources. Our consumption and development model has become more unstable and unsustainable than ever before.
As world leaders descend into Rio, much of our future depends on the collective decisions they make at the summit. Over 50,000 scientists, environmentalists, development experts, corporates, activists and youth are expected to attend this once-a-generation event to produce a vision we want for our future.
Informal consultations on the Rio+20 outcomes have already begun and the signs aren’t very positive. Many fear that this summit, from June 20—June 22, may turn into a forum of power play between the exiting rich countries and the emerging rich economies. After all, world dynamics have certainly altered two decades later with China, India, South Africa, Russia and Brazil asserting themselves as new super-powers. The success of the conference depends on how the rich western countries and emerging economies play their part instead of locking horns.
The Rio+20 summit must be a truly people’s summit. It should work towards eradicating hunger, ensuring sound health for all, providing access to clean drinking water and sanitation, and uplifting lives of the poor and marginalized. In order to achieve this, there must be a massive shift in the usual economic model to a new one. During the Earth Summit in 1992, the then president of United States, George H. Bush had said, “The American way of life is not up for negotiations.” Such attitude from world leaders will not help in achieving the objective of the conference. The irony is that the very way of American life today is threatened by climate change.
Among others, the Rio+20 summit will focus on few important aspects. One, financial mechanism in supporting developing countries and putting them on the path of sustainable development. Two, promoting a green economy, i.e., protecting the environment while development continues and moving away from fossil fuel-based energy to greener and sustainable mode of energy production and consumption. Three, setting up a new institutional framework for sustainable development.
The current United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is likely to be turned into a powerful UN Agency called the World Environment Organization. There is also a strong push for initiating the preparation of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that would succeed the UN Millennium Development Goals after 2015. For now, all these issues are up for negotiations.
However, tension and anxiety about how to meet these expectations is escalating. The economic crisis is emptying the European coffer while the US, Canada and Japan seem hesitant to make any strong pledges in terms of financial contribution. On the other hand, they demand that the emerging economies contribute to the green economy concept, unsupported. The emerging economies, meanwhile, are refusing to budge without adequate financial and technological support.
These power games and shifting onus and responsibilities is taking its toll on the poor and economically stunted countries. These blocs of countries need urgent and immediate support. They have very little ability to buy the concept of green economy and maintain sustainable development, without financial and technological support. Capacity building and internal institutional strengthening is another core component that should not be overlooked.
At present, Nepal is the leader of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group in the UN and has a huge onus of championing the issues of poor and marginalized countries. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is leading a big Nepali delegation in the Rio+20 Summit. In the backdrop of his being a caretaker government and facing a hostile opposition, Prime Minister Bhattarai will need to be much more creative and show dynamic leadership to play an instrumental role that will satisfy the members of the group he leads.
Rio+20 is once in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and world leaders should display some bold leadership to prove that there indeed are solutions to problems and all hurdles can be overcome with positive and visionary leadership. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon recently said, “Because so many of today’s challenges are global, they demand a global response—collective power exercised in powerful partnership. Now is not the moment for narrow squabbling. This is a moment for world leaders and their people to unite in common purpose around a shared vision of our common future—the future we want.” World leaders should not allow people’s hopes and our future course to be derailed at the altar of petty power plays; the leaders at the Rio+20 summit should remember not to fail the people they represent.