Twenty years after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, where countries adopted Agenda 21 - a blueprint to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection – Rio+20 again brought together governments, international institutions and major groups to agree on a range of smart measures that can reduce poverty while promoting decent jobs, clean energy and a more sustainable and fair use of resources.
Rio+20 - the short name for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) that concluded June 22 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is described as a historic opportunity to define pathways to a safer, more equitable, cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all.
There is strong opinion, not without good cause, that much has not been achieved since the first Rio Conference and the adoption of Agenda 21, for satisfaction on progress in the issues that it sought to address, and the commitment of countries to the principles of environment protection and sustainable development. The current political developments in many parts of the world also sought to take the focus away from Rio+ 20. To those interested in headlines the G20 Summit held in Mexico just before Rio + 20 seemed to have much more importance than the wider issues being discussed at UNCSD.
Euro zone crisis
As the Guardian UK reported last Thursday (21) quoting Gro Harlem Brundtland, one of the chief architects of the first Rio Earth summit in 1992, the Euro zone crisis and US presidential race damaged Rio+20 prospects on building a global consensus on sustainability, which has become increasingly difficult as a result of economic crises and a US political climate that is increasingly hostile to action on climate change.
The former Norwegian Prime Minister lamented the absence of Barack Obama, David Cameron and many other leaders from the follow-up Rio+20, but said they faced circumstances that are very different from those of the 1992 summit.
"The absences are not good and they don't look good. One explanation is the terrible difficulties in Europe. The Europeans would normally feel like they should be here," she told the Guardian. "The financial and economic problems that some countries face don't make it easier for them to agree on things that they would have agreed to before 2008."
Speaking on the sidelines of Rio 20+ she said that in the US, she saw a worrying decline in political support for environmental issues. "The election scene is an obvious factor in the decision by Obama not to be here. The climate issue on the American scene has been really difficult for years and in many ways it is worse now than three or four years ago. The Republican right - the Tea party, etc - are building around climate denial. In that sense, the American scene is deteriorating on these issues."
The continuing euro zone crisis that is contributing to the economic problems in both the developed countries and the emerging economies too, is another matter that sought t take the focus away from Rio+20. However, even in the absence of the headlines being grabbed by the two elections in Greece and Egypt, the continuing threat to the Euro and the even bigger danger to the revolution in Egypt and the Arab Spring with the military re-establishing its ruthless control, Rio+20 did address key issues that can no more be avoided, even in the midst of a presidential election in the world’s only super power and the crisis of confidence in the political leadership in Europe.
The thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, NGOs and other stakeholders who were present at Rio last week made a strong push towards sustainable development, taking it as an opportunity to move away from the 'business-as-usual' approach to issues of the environment, and to act in a more positive manner to end poverty, address environmental destruction and build a bridge to the future. The focus of the discussions, therefore, was on two main themes: How to build a green economy to achieve sustainable development and lift people out of poverty, including support for developing countries that will allow them to find a green path for development; and how to improve international coordination for sustainable development.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement at the plenary session of Rio+20 drew attention to the tasks ahead, and lay emphasis on the issues that involve the search for a green path for development. In the context of the developed countries attempting to pay less attention to the need for environment protection, despite them being the major cause of environment degradation through their destructive patterns of consumption, and emphasis on exploitation of the assets of nature, while seeking to thrust the burden of sustainable development largely on the developing countries, he was emphatic that “Saving environment is not task of developing countries alone”
As the President said: “Addressing the environmental crisis, should not be a burden for the developing countries alone. The developed countries, which largely contribute to the environmental crisis, cannot and should not leave the responsibility of saving the environment to developing countries, at the cost of their economic development.”
With clear reference to the burdens being imposed on the developing world on issues of environment protection and promoting sustainable development, President Rajapaksa said: “Transition to a green economy is one among many tools that could minimize unsustainable consumption and production practices. On the other hand, transition to a green economy must not generate negative externalities to slow down the growth of social and economic development of a country. The solution for sustainable development, therefore, should derive from a concept that encapsulates poverty eradication, resource and energy efficiency, equity and better living standards for all the people.”
At a conference of national leaders and activists for the environment, where careful management of the oceans as an essential global resource and a key feature of a sustainable future was recognized, as well as where the issue of employment and poverty eradication were matters of major concern, President Rajapaksa had an important observation to make on aspect of ocean exploitation, with which Sri Lanka is only too familiar.
On the need to protect the sea bed and ocean floor from environment unfriendly methods of fishing, President Rajapaksa said: “A cardinal principle governing the behaviour of nations in the modern world should be recognition of the principle that the resources of a country, whether on land or in the oceans, belong to the people of that country.
“Their enjoyment of these resources for the improvement of their economic and social condition should in no way be hampered by encroachment on these resources by external interests. Protection of the sea bed and ocean floor against damage by the use of environment unfriendly methods of fishing, such as bottom trawling should be guaranteed by international law and practice, by means of effective remedies,” he said.
Rio+20 saw seven priority areas that call for urgent action being brought into focus. These are encompassed in Sustainable Development that seeks to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Seen as the guiding principle for long-term global development, sustainable development consists of three pillars: economic development, social development and environmental protection. The priority areas highlighted in the search for sustainable development include decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.
President Rajapaksa drew from the examples of Sri Lankan history and tradition to show how our societies had recognized the importance of living in harmony with nature. He recalled the advise by the Arahat Mahinda to King Devanam Piyatissa, more than 2,300 years ago, that the latter was only a trustee of the land and environment and had no right to destroy these assets which rightfully belong to future generations. The overriding principle which must be recognized in full measure by all nations is that of preventing abuse of the environment.
President Rajapaksa said that all people desire a prosperous and peaceful life. They also wish to see that the concept of sustainable development becomes a practical reality. These aspirations present an opportunity for us to make earnest efforts to strike a balance between the interest of maintaining harmony between 'man and nature' with that of 'the environment and development'. “Sri Lanka believes that Rio+20 is an excellent opportunity to determine our future goals and establish a road map for sustainable development based on the Rio principles, in particular, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. I believe that a solution for this crisis requires a new global economic order which is fair and equitable including debt relief, fair trade and external funding. Any tool in this regard should respect the purposes and principles already enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and other Conventions on the Environment. It should not undermine the sovereignty of States over their natural resources.
He concluded with words of assurance and hope that “Sri Lanka stands ready to shoulder its responsibilities and honour its commitments. We must not disappoint our future generations by failing to agree on a balanced outcome today. It is the right of our children to have a better future. I fervently hope that this conference would live up to this responsibility.”