The future we wanted
Every 10 years since 1992 the world has had a window on the chance to turn around our destiny at the UN conference on environment and sustainable development.
Rio+20 was our third chance. It was clear from the start that convincing world leaders to strengthen environmental governance would be an uphill battle.
Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik set off for Brazil aiming to secure an agreement that was “concrete and irreversible enough that everybody will believe us that we have globally committed”.
Heads of state from 57 countries attended the conference along with 487 ministers. As the commissioner noted on returning from the Earth Summit, the final document steers shy of timelines and goals for priority areas.
In an effort to better understand people’s needs, since its inception the summit has divided civil society into nine major groups: children and youth, farmers, women, indigenous peoples, NGOs, science and technology, local authorities, business and industry, trade unions and women.
The groups issued a joint statement which was, at every level,an acknowledgement of the sober facts:
“Globally we have never generated more wealth and yet the inequality gap continues to grow. We are consuming resources faster than earth can generate them and producing more waste and pollution that the earth can absorb.”
Twelve million hectares of productive land are lost every year to desertification. Over the next 25 years land degradation could reduce global food production by as much as 12 per cent leading to a 30 per cent increase in world food prices.
There are concerns that the limit of sustainability of water resources – both surface and ground water – has been reached or surpassed in many regions. The oceans’ absorption of man-made carbon dioxide is increasing its acidity which could lead to massive extinctions of marine life by 2100 according to Unesco.
The ability of nations to deal with these growing problems appears diminished, partly because the EU is distracted by the economic crisis. This is evident from the incoming presidency held by Cyprus for the next six months with its focus on steering talks toward agreement of the next EU budget for the period 2014-2020.
An upcoming election has stolen the attention of the US while government power is heavily influenced by corporations. Corporate capture of the UN has long been decried by civil society. Rather than defending the earth from destruction, governments seem bent on “defending the machine that is destroying it” (George Monbiot, the Guardian).
A delegate from Nicaragua commented that the final document to come out of the summit “contributes almost nothing to our struggle to survive as a species.” However, commissioner Potocnik gave credit for the conference’s nod to the role of green economies and its recognition of the need for a broader measure of progress than simply basing quality on GDP.
NGOs regarded any document referring to ‘the future we want’ without mention of planetary boundaries, tipping points, or the Earth’s carrying capacity as completely out of touch with reality,failing to secure a future for coming generations.
Sustainability solutions from 60 countries were showcased in an exhibition called The Future We Want. Creators of the project, Jonathan Arnold and Bill Becker, believe it is time to move beyond visions of doom and gloom and engage in a discussion about how to build a future that is healthy,verdant and just.
Added together, all the corporate social responsibility programmes and initiatives to come out of the summit will not be nearly enough to save the world according to Peter Bakker, the chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
He added that “with the majority of the world’s population living in cities, this is where we need to concentrate on creating change to take a systems point of view, create coalitions of the people who want to be good, who have plans to progress and make it attractive for other people to follow. The 20 per cent of really bad guys we need to regulate out of existence”.
Succinctly, Tourism Minister Mario de Marco was reported to have rounded off this year’s summit with a plain truth – we cannot afford to meet in 20… 10, or even in five years’ time only to admit again that many of our aims have remained “on paper”.
Country position papers and responses during the consultation phase of the EU’s sixth environmental action plan, which ran parallel to the UN summit, are now available on the Europa website.
While keen to go down on record as agreeing strongly with implementation of agreed policies and legislation, the Maltese environment ministry was warm to middling on the option to define a detailed list of actions to be implemented by 2020.
Among the challenges ticked by the ministry to be of the highest importance were marine and outdoor air pollution, pollution from hazardous chemicals insufficient water quality and resource over-consumption accompanied by potential scarcity and price volatility.
Policies related to consumers, health and employment were judged to hold the greatest potential for improving the environment although a less populist, more holistic span was missing. Lower ratings were given by the environment ministry to research and innovation, transport, agriculture and rural development, energy, climate change and fisheries – possibly due to these regarded as being behind their respective ministerial frontiers, locked up in separate domains as far as governance goes.
As potential aids to environmental improvement, public procurement and fiscal policy were rated disappointingly low by the ministry. Promoting greater public awareness of the role played by soil as a resource in the environment and the economy while setting binding targets to reduce its degradation and were rated worryingly as “not at all important”.
According to the rating, our ministry regards EU legislation as not giving enough importance to indoor pollution yet falls shy of backing enhanced capacity at EU level to ensure consistency and effectiveness of implementation of environmental law.
On the other hand, the ministry seems rather tepid towards receiving more extensive criteria on how member states should undertake inspections and surveillance making a significant contribution.
While gaining a greater understanding of what our political representatives are about, we owe the privilege of accessing our own environment ministry’s responses to Brussels to the EU’s transparency on this count.
Since the first Earth Summit n 1992
• Fully exploited fish stocks increased by 13 %
• Biodiversity declined by 12 %
• Protected areas increased by 42%
• Renewable world energy supply is only 13%
• Plastics production rose by 130%
• Demand for cement rose by 170%