Pursuing a future we all want…

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By: Malaka Rodrigo, Rio de Janerio

The three-day mega conference was billed as ‘a once in a generation opportunity’ to course correct, two decades after the historic Earth Summit had created the first ever global synergy for environment related causes. But the lack of clear commitments, timetables, financing or means of monitoring progress prompted dismay among many delegates and observers. Despite calls for urgent action to “change unsustainable production and consumption”, the agreement reached at RIO+20 outlines few concrete steps if goals of long term sustainability are to be achieved. India welcomed the retention of the principle of ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities’ (CBDR) that commits all nations to environmental course correction but places more responsibility on the developed North for the damages they have done in the past. CBDR fits well with its growth imperatives.

Spring is the most beautiful period of the year, celebrated with the chorus of different birds. But 50 years ago, Rachel Carson, an American conservationist, was puzzled by springs that had increasingly become silent. Investigation revealed that DDT, which had been used as a pesticide, was thinning the egg shells of birds. This resulted in the decline of bird population and ultimately resulted in ‘Silent Springs’, Carson’s book, which has since, become an eye opener.
In the 50 years since Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Springs’ highlighted the environmental impact of human activities, nations have made several attempts to take collective actions. However, ripples of the failure of cohesive efforts too have been felt across the globe. Despite the history, the UN held the Sustainability Summit in Rio de Janerio as a 20 year follow-up to the Earth Summit held in 1992.
This  summit,  tagged  as  the  last chance  for  nations  to  save  the  world, involved 192  heads  of  states.  These  leaders  agreed  to  the iconic  ‘Agenda  21’,  which  is  aiming  to  implement  sustainable  development  globally.
Despite these efforts, earth’s environment continues to degrade. According to a recent study, the planet will require at least one and a half years to regenerate natural resources consumed annually. Urbanisation and development have continued on an unsustainable pathway without being concerned about the repercussions. And the biodiversity crisis is threatening almost half of Earth’s species with extinction by the next century if immediate action is not taken.

The mega-conference in Rio de Janerio was billed as a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to re-balance the  needs  of  the  economy,  society and environment, but the deal reached by negotiators was immediately  criticised as too weak to be effective. It included a limited upgrade to the UN Environment Programme, outlined the benefits of a green economy, promised to do more to protect the world’s oceans and started a process to establish sustainable  development  goals.  But  the lack of clear commitments, timetables, financing or means of monitoring progress in the text of the ‘Future we all want’ declaration, left delegates largely disappointed.
It is “telling that nobody in that room adopting the text was happy. That’s how weak it is,” tweeted European Union’s climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard after the pre-summit consultations. The text “has too much ‘take note’ and ‘reaffirm’ and too little ‘decide’ and ‘commit’. (The) big task now for UN nations is to follow up” on this, she added.
The RIO+20 summit was in troubled waters from the very beginning. Green economy has been the top UN agenda and  the  main  strategy  to move towards sustainability. But lack of a clear definition of ‘Green Economy’ made many developing countries move cautiously. In fact, the international political situation became  an  impediment for countries to come to an agreement about environment issues. The summit was scheduled at a bad time for Europe, as many of the countries are engulfed in a series of political and economic crises. Similarly, West   Asia   is   too   unstable    to concentrate on saving the   environment.
US president Barrack Obama and the German and British heads of state were notable among the absentees. Obama’s absence can, in part, be contributed to a tough re-election campaign amidst economic crisis. In any case, a strong global decision was not even expected to emerge from RIO+20, keeping in mind the ground realities. However, the presence of Indian Premier Manmohan Singh was considered a positive sign for emerging economies trying to pursue pro-environment development. Addressing the plenary session, Singh said “Many countries could do more if additional finance and technology were available. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of support from the industrialised countries in these areas (reducing emissions intensity). The ongoing economic crisis has made matters worse.”

Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan said India was satisfied that no specific goals and targets have been agreed. As for ‘Green Economy,’ against which she had expressed reservations even before she left for Rio, she said India was disappointed at the lack of financial commitment from the global North to developing countries that would help them meet their green growth objectives.
India’s stance, has been to push forth the point that the country needs more room to develop. It was also pointed out that since the developed nations had reached a position where they were already following an unsustainable idea of development, there should be some compensation for the under-developed countries. However, many branches of objections and conflicting interests entered into the negotiations, making a common agreement very difficult.
The summit was convened with the understanding that implementation of the original Rio objectives had been hampered by the absence of key elements such as effective transposition of the Rio objectives into national legislations and absence of an effective accountability structure to monitor governments’ implementation of the Rio agenda.
Effective engagement of finance and economic ministries and providing a basis for long term sustainable development was required to push the present day action on environment.  The GLOBE summit recognised the role of legislators in pushing the RIO agenda forward and engaging in the development, passage and overseeing of the implementation of national legislation.

The GLOBE summit ended with RIO+20 legislator’s protocol signed by the heads of the national delegations. The protocol sets out a number of commitments for parliaments designed to strengthen delivery of the original Rio agenda, progress within UN Conventions on Biodiversity, Climate Change and Desertification and commitments to emerge from RIO+20.
GLOBE emphasised on the importance of considering Natural Capital in the national budgets. Natural capital refers to those aspects of the natural  environment  that  deliver socio-economic  value  through ecosystem services. For example, wetlands provide water treatment and purification services, prevent floods by retaining surface run-offs and provide wildlife habitat. Natural capital exists alongside man-made capital. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculated by governments is incomplete according to GLOBE. GDP only measures gross output and provides no indication of whether income and growth are sustainable. Moreover, the true value of natural capital and the important economic contributions of ecosystems are not fully captured. Therefore, the unsustainable use of natural resources can result in an increase in a country’s GDP while it actually becomes poorer, it felt.
Developing ‘Natural Capital Accounts’ is a critical step towards reshaping existing policy and national accounting frameworks to accurately reflect the relationship between the economy and the environment. With the adoption of the System for Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) earlier this year, there is now an internationally agreed  framework  to  account  for these interactions and to measure material natural resources like minerals, timber and fisheries. Many experts addressed  the  GLOBE  summit  such  as  Prof  Jonathan  Baillie  who  is  a global  authority  on  the  status  and trends of threatened species. He said that by including the value of the environment into wealth estimates and macroeconomic indicators, such as GDP,  governments can ensure that their development strategies deliver sustainable and inclusive growth. It is in the interest of both developed and developing  countries  to  move  beyond GDP and to start incorporating natural capital into their national accounts to make enlightened economic decisions. Addressing questions on whether valuing of nature can give permits to abuse, he said that those who want to abuse will do it anyway and giving a value to the natural capital will help to understand how much we lose.  The  system  is  still  not perfect,  but  a  start  should  be  made  somewhere,  he  added.

Five Indian legislators representing the ruling party and the opposition have participated actively in the summit. Prakash Javadekar of BJP, who has been actively engaged in the dialogues, said that the summit has been a good forum for legislators to interact with their counterparts from the other countries. The issues related to sustainability could be discussed formally and informally. He added that the initial draft of the protocol had been biased towards the West, but after debates, the points raised by India were included in a democratic manner as well.
Javadekar stressed that India’s position in the Rio summit was CBDR and stated that its principles should be upheld. India  will  continue  to  raise  equity issues  in  international  forums  such as RIO+20. Javadekar mentioned  that a GLOBE chapter has been initiated  in  India.  He  is  positive  that along  with  legislators  from  all  over the world, necessary measures can be taken  to  make  development  more  sustainable.

Malaka Rodrigo, a naturalist based in Sri Lanka, received the Best Environmental Journalist award for 2010.

Published on ECO (Earth Care Optimized) Magazine which is having a Pan-Indian Circulation www.ecoearthcare.com/storyd.asp?sid=233&pageno=3 

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