Essay: The UN's inaugural 1992 Summit in Rio was full of hope, seen for years as a watershed in facing the dangers of ecological ruin. Now it is more clear than ever that economic priorities still rule.
GENEVA - The 1992 Rio Earth Summit was a turning point for environmental activism. For the first time, countries around the world agreed to work towards sustainable development. But 20 years later, what has been done? Next week's summit will be much less ambitious.
The 1992 Earth Summit was a historic turning point for environmental, economic and development policies, because it succeeded in rallying world leaders to the idea of sustainable development. Twenty years later and a few days before the opening of the Rio +20 Summit – officially called the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – what has the Rio summit actually yielded?
After 1992, countries came around to the idea that protecting the environment, having a booming economy, and sharing resources in a fair way were the three conditions of long-term prosperity. Sustainable development was defined by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development as a "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The good thing about this definition is that it is vague enough for everyone to agree on.
Rio was a revelation for many people, and generated much enthusiasm. The summit's success owes much to the 1500 NGOs who organized a parallel conference gathering 17,000 participants. But Rio also owes a lot to the big private corporations who participated, and to the extraordinary personality of Maurice Strong. This Canadian businessman, first director of the United Nations Environment Program, a humanist, green pioneer, and living embodiment of sustainable development, organized the conference and made sure that it ran smoothly.
During the summit, 178 countries signed the "Agenda 21" blueprint for the 21st century covering all aspects affecting the environment, including poverty, consumption patterns, demography, health, climate, agriculture, forests, biodiversity, water, chemistry, waste, governance and democracy. Many people – including me – hoped that Rio 92 would pave the way for a paradigm shift and for new priorities, both economic and political, more balanced and fair, and that would use less resources. At first things were definitely headed the right way, with the signature of conventions on biological diversity and the climate, and with the creation of the Global Environment Facility, which spends $500 million a year on environmental projects.
In Switzerland, joint efforts between federal bodies for the environment, the economy, infrastructure and development have increased. I worked on the Co2 law, and went to Kyoto in 1997 and then Marrakech in 2001 to kick-start the implementation of the Climate Change Convention. But we were quickly brought down to earth.
The economy holds the cards
Today, Kyoto is dead and the Climate Change Convention is at a standstill, while emissions of greenhouse gases increase and biological diversity recedes under the pressure of deforestation, desertification, pollution, intensive agriculture and overfishing. The Millennium Goals of the UN General Assembly of 2000 and later of the Johannesburg 2002 Earth Summit just repeated and watered down the objectives adopted in 1992. Some might think that it's because environmental issues had become mainstream.
But if you look at current political programs – and to the recent French presidential campaign – you will see that the issue of sustainable development is not a priority at all. The financial difficulties in which the governments and neo-liberal economies are mired have revived old growth recipes, and set aside the fact that social justice, nature, ecosystems and environment are the foundations of long-term prosperity.
The Rio +20 Earth Summit announced its modest objectives from the beginning. The objective is not to find solutions to the great challenges the planet will face, nor to suggest a paradigm shift to restore the balance between humanity and nature. The conference wishes to promote a green economy whose only goals are building efficient and renewable techniques, and creating so-called "green jobs." The draft resolution reasserts the same main principles tirelessly rehashed since 1992, with no new ambitions. Yes, we should be talking about developing better ways to produce more while consuming less resources and energy, but we should also heed that technical progress leads automatically to an increase in consumption, often because of misguided policies (buy more to save the economy and jobs). This "rebound effect" leads to more pressure on resources, the emissions of greenhouse gases, the deterioration of nature and loss of biodiversity.
We are not talking about boycotting the Rio +20 conference, but we must be aware that, even if it's a success, the conference won't implement the profound changes our society needs to reach its sustainable development objectives: fulfilling our essential needs, the flourishing of our society and a real ecological transition. All of this is incompatible with the ideology of economic and demographic growth which dominates today's world.
*Philippe Roch was part of the Swiss delegation to Rio 1992 and has represented Switzerland in international negotiations on the environment as an expert on environmental protection.
Read the original article in French.
Photo - UN Climate Change