Twenty years after the UN summit on Sustainable Development, delegates from United Nations countries are back in Rio de Janeiro to talk about protecting the environment. The likelihood of Rio+20 succeeding is poor.
The economic crisis means member states have got other things on their minds. The good news is that a number of multinationals have made far-reaching pledges for a sustainable future.
In 1992, the Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, was meant to mark the beginning of a sustainable, green economy. It paid attention to climate change, conservation, alternative energy sources and combating poverty. The Kyoto protocol aimed at reducing CO2 emissions followed in Rio’s wake. A plan of action, Agenda 21, was drawn up to take care of the details.
The summit gave a huge impulse to international environmental awareness and the willingness of development organisations and governments to initiate change. However, 20 years on, little has been achieved in spite of the good intentions.
Never before have biodiversity and ecosystems been under such huge pressure. Scientists like Richard Leakey and Stuart Pimm have extensively documented how species have been lost, in what they called ‘the Sixth Extinction’. Every 20 minutes, a species disappears forever somewhere on the planet. The current wave of extinction is more extensive than the last one, 65 million years ago, when a meteorite put an end to the age of the dinosaurs.
The latest IUCN Red List (International Union for Conservation of Nature), presented just days ahead of the summit, reveals that almost 20,000 plant and animal species face possible extinction.
Just as they do during the climate talks, rich and poor countries continue to squabble over their right to economic development, food security and combating poverty versus the need to find environmentally responsible ways to achieve these things. Far-reaching agreements seem impossible as long as all the parties have to be kept satisfied. The British newspaper The Guardian leaked a draft text on Tuesday afternoon called 'The Future We Want'.
In it, negotiators from host country Brazil set out the problems and the good intentions, without making any concrete proposals or promises. Environment organisations and NGOs are disappointed. Greenpeace even called it “an epic failure”.
In the meantime, change is taking place in the boardrooms of big business. Most multinationals have already added a sustainability paragraph to their annual reports. Meanwhile, the Sustainability Yearbook checks whether they fulfil their pledges.
In the margins of Rio, CEOs from 45 international companies, including PepsiCo, Nestlé, Nike and Shell, signed a declaration promising to work towards sustainable development, in particular in the area of safe drinking water, limiting CO2 emissions and sustainable clothing. In the so-called UN Global Compact, the companies agree to be judged by their achievements in this direction.
They are calling on government leaders to do what they can for a green economy. However, they are totally consumed by the economic crisis. The absence of US President Barack Obama and European leaders Angela Merkel and David Cameron is a bad sign.
The European Commission has drawn up a list of priorities focussing on protecting ecosystems, alleviating the worst poverty and developing a 'roadmap' towards a green economy. It is not clear however, how this will be financed.
At the beginning of June, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the negotiations were extremely slow. He warned that the international community risked “wasting a once-in-a-generation opportunity”. Only to play down his words by adding that talks on these issues always go on “until the last minute”. Whatever the outcome, there is little left of the optimism of 20 years ago.