It is against the background of increasingly greater challenges in almost every environmental respect that the Rio +20 conference takes place. But wouldn't it be more accurate to call it Rio -20?
The international community gathers in Rio de Janeiro at the UN's conference on sustainable development. For three days, governments, civil society, multilateral organizations, the business community, and other actors assess the agreements from previous summits on sustainable development and lay down a new international environmental policy. The Rio Summit builds on a long tradition of international summits on the global environment, which dates back to the UN's first environmental conference in Stockholm in 1972 and, more recently to the Earth Summit, held in Rio in 1992. Both the Stockholm Conference and the Earth Summit were instrumental in putting environment protection on the multilateral agenda. Significantly, they linked the destruction of ecosystems to global poverty and the rich countries' consumption, as inseparable parts of a complex problem.
When the international community now convenes again in Rio, they have to deal with a harsher reality than 20 and 40 years ago. While global GDP has grown by 75 per cent since 1992, the planet has never been under such massive pressure. Humanity is now facing its biggest threat so far, global warming. It is urgent to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, but the trend remains the reverse: since 1990 emissions have increased by almost 40 per cent, according to UN statistics. Moreover, the so-called 'Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report' (2005), commissioned by the UN and developed by over a thousand leading scientists, demonstrates that as much as two thirds of the world's ecosystems services - on which we are directly dependent for our survival - are threatened or in serious decline. In just 15 years' time, global demand for natural resources has doubled, with the regeneration of renewable resources that humans consume in a year now taking 1.5 years.
Meanwhile, world population continues to grow, especially the affluent middle class. The UN High Level Panel on Global Sustainability (launched in 2010 by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon) estimates in the report 'A Future Worth Choosing' that in 2030, the world will need at least 50 per cent more food, 45 per cent more energy, and 30 per cent more water.
It is against this background of increasingly greater challenges in almost every environmental respect, that the Conference, popularly known as Rio +20, takes place. There is broad consensus that the core issue now is implementation. World governments have in recent decades agreed on a host of principles for sustainable development, but they have not translated them into practice. Given such passivity, Rio +20 actually is more so Rio -20. It's not much further than square one marked by Stockholm 1972 as the first global conference on environment.
The prospect of achieving adequate and legally binding commitments to address environmental degradation is unlikely to be better today than it was then. The lack of political will shown by the world's governments in Copenhagen to avert the fatal threat of global warming is a case in point. Continuous economic decline unfortunately also is a major obstacle to environmental action. Perhaps that is why the talk of a 'green economy' has been so popular with governments in the preparatory work for Rio +20. The basic idea is that the necessary transformation to an environmentally sustainable economy will also create jobs and increased prosperity.
However, to date there is no universally accepted definition or common understanding of what a green economy is supposed to be. Discussions have focused on the pricing of ecosystem services and the new markets to be opened up thereby, and on the necessity to internalize the costs of environmental degradation in national accounts (beyond GDP). Paradoxically, what governments do seem to agree on is the need for each country to interpret the concept of a green economy according to national priorities. If this stance is adopted in Rio, it means that it is up to each country to define what is meant by a green economy. This would represent a clear departure from the universal principles and norms that have so far characterized multilateral environmental negotiations.
In light of the serious situation we're in, it seems a dubious way to go. Rather, what is now required is precisely the inverse, joint commitments and strict, standardized implementation. Therefore, a reasonable starting point might be the work on 'planetary boundaries', recently launched by Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). SEI's research shows that it is high time that we secure what is called a 'safe operating space' for human activities. This is defined by the nine non-negotiable planetary thresholds (e.g., greenhouse gases, land use, biodiversity, and ocean acidification), which must not be exceeded in order to avoid catastrophic environmental degradation. In short, the economy must stay within the planetary boundaries.
Based on this science, world governments should now establish global sustainability goals on the model of the Millennium Development Goals (2000) for poverty reduction and development. The targets should be evaluated and monitored, ideally with the possibility of sanctions if not complied with. An institutional condition is that the Rio +20 heed the general opinion (so far 110 countries) that residual requirement to upgrade the UN Environment Programme, UNEP, to a full UN body's muscles to ensure that commitments are fulfilled. The world has never needed it as much as today.
Henning Melber is Executive Director and Robert Ã-sterbergh Project Coordinator at the Dag HammarskjÃÂ¶ld Foundation in Uppsala/Sweden.