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Economic downturn threatens focus at sustainability summit

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 15 Jun 2012 16:45 GMT
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AlertNet) – World leaders, already struggling with tough economic times, will sit down in Rio next week to try to sort out a daunting array of other problems – from how to deal with climate change and worsening scarcity of key resources like food and water, to how to make the world’s economy less environmentally destructive and more effective for the world’s poor.

The Rio+20 sustainable development conference – which comes 20 years after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – recognizes that the world’s environmental, economic and social problems are increasingly inter-related and need to be addressed jointly, experts say.

The question is whether the crises brewing around the world – including the current economic downturn – will focus leaders’ minds on the need for change or simply be too big a distraction for the gathering to make significant progress, experts say.

“Rio+20 should serve as a wake-up call for our planet,” said Manish Bapna, interim president of the World Resources Institute, a U.S.-based thinktank. “Leaders in Rio need to make sustainability a global priority, placing it at the very center of political and economic agendas.

“We can no longer afford to view environmental issues as being apart from, or in conflict with economic growth – but rather see sustainability as an integrated, pro-growth path forward,” he said.

Leaders meeting at Rio are expected to consider launching a number of fundamental changes, including new Sustainable Development Goals to replace the largely unfulfilled Millennium Development Goals that expire in 2015. They will also consider measures to expand GDP – the current measure used to judge economic progress – to put a value on “ecosystem services” provided by forests, wetlands and other natural systems, which help provide clean water, stable rainfall and services like pollination.

Given the size and complexity of the challenges – and the problems in making progress at similar U.N. gatherings such as global climate talks – expectations for Rio+20 are limited, even as ambitions remain high.

Much of the negotiating text to be presented to leaders next week is still being debated, and many of the issues that have plagued the climate talks are surfacing in Rio as well. Those include a demand from poorer countries that rich nations should have “differentiated responsibilities” for action to largely ignored pleas by European countries to set dates and targets on what action will be taken and when.


The summit also has struggled to effectively explain to a broad public its sometimes difficult-to-grasp aims around revising GDP and building an inclusive “green economy.” Many people, experts say, continue to see efforts to make economies and lives more sustainable as a threat to their current lifestyles, or the ones they aspire to achieve.

A sustainable lifestyle “remains an abstraction for the major part of our population,” said Bill Becker, founder of The Future We Want, a U.S.-based organization that seeks to help people visualize proposed changes through things like computer animations showing cities with denser housing and better access to public transportation.

But the need for change is evident. The average person living in the European Union – seen as one of the more environmentally conscious parts of the developed world – today uses at least five times as many resources as the planet can support per capita, said Oksana Mont, of Lund University in Sweden.

And consumption is growing. In the EU between 1990 and 2007, car ownership rose 35 percent, meat imports rose 120 percent and air travel jumped 9 percent, according to Mont, who is part of a coalition of European researchers investigating sustainable living.

Most of the world’s countries – from giants such as India and China to fragile nations like Niger – so far are consuming at a rate, per capita, below the world’s carrying capacity, she said. But if they achieve their development goals – or even a basic level of human development in some poor countries – many will rise above that line, dramatically increasing demands on the world’s fast-diminishing natural resources.

Conversely, as competition for scarce resources increases and much of the world is hit with higher food prices, water shortages and more extreme weather linked to climate change, many of the world’s poorest – particularly women and girls – may find themselves becoming ever poorer, activists warned.

“Our current development model … threatens to reverse the gains in poverty reduction of the past last 20 years and limits the opportunities of current and future generations to fight poverty,” warned Kit Vaughan, advocacy coordinator for CARE’s Poverty, Environment and Climate Change Network.

Changing that, experts say, will require action at Rio to begin shifting the world onto a more sustainable, fairer and less environmentally damaging economic path.

“Despite our best efforts and some progress over the past 20 years, too many environmental trends are heading in the wrong direction,” said Bapna of the World Resources Institute, at a press briefing.

“We need less talk, and more action; fewer promises, and more concrete steps for government policy and business practices,” Bapna said.

“Let’s seize this opportunity to protect our planet and ensure that people have a safer, more prosperous, and healthier future. The eyes of the world are on us. We cannot afford to let this moment slip by.”

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)



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