Comment and Analysis

If Rio+20 fails, we're all screwed

Sipho Kings

The Rio+20 text leaves one with little hope that a solution to saving the environment will be agreed upon, writes Sipho Kings.

A human banner at Flamengo beach in Rio de Janeiro in the sidelines of the Rio+20. Nearly 1 500 people formed this image promoting the importance of climate issues. (AFP, Spectral Q, Chico Paulo)

My mum and dad decided one kid was enough. Even in the 80s it was clear we were shoving the earth down the drain and if we didn’t do something we were in for a horrid time. So it was a simple decision, even if it meant I didn’t have a sibling to experiment on.

Isn’t this how it’s supposed to work? We find a problem, admit it’s something that needs to be worked on, and pool our resources to get the solution rolling. Especially if the problem is the continued existence of our species!

But no. I forgot about that sub-species of humanity that rises to the top of the political pile and dictates where ship humanity steers. Oh well, such a pity. My parents should have spawned a dynasty and taken over the world. The smallest change won’t make any real impression in the face of the overwhelming negativity and self-interest of our rudderless leaders.

I promise I wasn’t always this cynical. I grew up like all other kids – full of hope and a belief that the world could be changed. It’s what we’re good at, us youths, we come along and try give the system a shove in the right direction. I even started this job thinking we could make a difference, and that somewhere along the line our leaders would have to grudgingly agree that we were right and push with us.

But this latest global environmental hoo-ha has done my head in. The original meeting in Rio in 1992 was one borne of hope and a realisation that the status quo was ruining the world. The Berlin Wall had come crashing down in 1989 and the newfound feeling of globalisation boosted people’s enthusiasm for change.

The document and promises that came out of Rio were revolutionary. They had the rich world promising to help the poor develop in a sustainable manner. They set goals, made demands of countries, and said things had to be done soon. It was a good blueprint.

But 10 years later the Earth Summit in Johannesburg rolled through town with similar but slightly reigned-in aspirations.

And now we face another conference with its horizons and aspirations lowered to a level where we’re going to be tripping over our own feet.

It’s been six months since that Tuesday in January when the draft text of The Future We Want was released. It’s an update on the original Rio declaration in 1992, which was necessary given that we’ve churned out an extra 1.4-billion people and started a consumption craze since then. A whole six months but the negotiators responsible wait until the last weekend to smash this fragile and hopeful document to pieces.

I almost imagine the United States delegation partying in their room and tearing the documents to shreds before using it to wipe their delicate bottoms—but I doubt it, that would be recycling.

In one foul swoop they add so many objections, the document is left looking massacred.

So what’s gone wrong? The short of it is that the world’s balance of power has shifted dramatically. In 1992 the G7, who consisted of the US, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and Canada, ran the world and had enough power to tell everyone what to do and where to sign. Even though the United States wasn’t keen on Rio, it grudgingly went along.

Now the G7 is gone and the G20 holds part of the reigns. The world economy is the priority, not the environment—just look at the fact that these leaders have gone to Mexico for that summit but many won’t make the short trip south.

The other big group in charge is G77 and China. In 1992 this group was around, but its members were weak. Now the third world is storming ahead with booming economies, while the West stagnates. So their opinions now hold sway. They want to develop using their natural advantages—just like the West did. Because of their phenomenal growth, creaking countries like the US no longer want to pay for them to develop in a sustainable way—which is the principle that underpins Rio.

The West is jealous and defensive at the changing balance of power. But the basic fact is that they savaged the planet to get ahead, and they need to redress this.

On a more positive note, while this battle is fought, developing countries are pushing their internal sustainable development agendas. For example, Mexico passed landmark legislation, which forces the country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050. Locally, South Africa is leading the world with the legislation that has been passed, even if there is little enforcement.

However, these are isolated examples. Change needs to happen across this little blue ball before we sink—and a global agreement that’s enforced is the one way to make this happen.

Now a weak text has been agreed to, one that sets nothing in stone and demands nothing of anyone. It’s pathetic. Again our leaders have followed their self-interests and ignored the greater good.

Not that we expected anything much more from Rio+20—the world has changed and corporate interests, expressed through the leaders they buy through campaign donations, run the show. Perhaps one day they’ll realise that one can’t do business on a planet that has nothing left to give.


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