Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Tuesday, 27 April 2010 12:19 UK

Reviving the spirit of Rio

Maurice Strong and Felix Dodds
Maurice Strong and Felix Dodds

Following the near collapse of the UN climate negotiations in December and the seeming paralysis of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in March, the whole idea of solving the world's environmental problems through multilateral negotiations seems to be in crisis. But, argue Maurice Strong and Felix Dodds, another recent development holds out the promise of reversing the trend.

Copenhagen factory (AP)
The Copenhagen climate summit did not deliver what many hoped it would

In two years' time, Rio de Janeiro will host another Earth Summit - 20 years after the first.

The idea was proposed in 2007 by Brazil's President Lula da Silva at the UN General Assembly.

It was clear to President Lula and to a growing number of others that the world has changed enormously since 1992, when the world agreed to Agenda 21 - the blueprint for creating a sustainable way of life in the 21st Century.

Rio 2012 could provide much-needed new momentum to international co-operation, not only on environment and sustainable development, but also on the problems that underpin the global financial crisis.

Broken promises

Most of the problems the world now faces have been on the international agenda for decades, some going back as far the Stockholm environmental conference in 1972.

They have now reached more acute, crisis proportions - not as a result of the lack of proclaimed government commitments to action, but to their dismal performance in implementing their agreements.

Indeed, if governments had implemented the many conventions, treaties and declarations they have negotiated from Stockholm to Rio to Kyoto to Johannesburg, we would be well along the road to sustainability.

Governments have done little to carry out their commitments, particularly as to helping finance developing countries' movement towards sustainability.

This failure has only added to the anger of most developing countries at the continued broken promises, and has undermined their ability to make commitments of their own.

As a result, we now face challenges on a number of fronts:

  • Human societies are living beyond the carrying capacity of the planet
  • Climate change has emerged as an out-of-control driver of many of the world's environmental and economic crises
  • The still-prevailing, consumption-based economic model is not only failing to deliver progress to enormous numbers of the world's population, but is seriously threatening the economic stability of all nations, and compromising the prospect for any of us to live on this planet
  • There is now an increasing link between environment and security
  • Governments have still not given the UN the mandate, the resources or the institutional capacities required to monitor and enforce international agreements.

All of these issues can be positively influenced by Earth Summit 2012.

But addressing them successfully will require an ambitious and creative agenda.

The UN General Assembly resolution last year which endorsed the summit, produced just that - including these areas of focus:

1. The green economy and poverty alleviation

The current economic model, which has brought unprecedented prosperity to the more developed countries, has only deepened the disparity between them and most developing countries.

Earth Summit 2012 presents a unique platform for negotiating the co-operation needed to achieve a new deal between North and South, rich and poor and present and future generations

Its excesses now threaten the stability of the entire global financial system as well.

The past 30 years have been characterised by irresponsible capitalism, pursuing limitless economic growth at the expense of both society and environment, channelling more and more money into fewer hands, with little or no regard for the natural resource base upon which such wealth is built.

The principal goal of our economy should be to improve the lives of all the world's people and to free them from want and ignorance - without compromising the planet itself.

An economy that integrates sustainable development principles with responsible capitalism can produce enough wealth to meet the needs of people in all nations, equitably and sustainably.

Energy use based on fossil fuels is at the heart of the dilemma, and is the principal source of climate change which threatens the future of all.

Earth Summit 2012 can clearly draw a roadmap to set the world on the path to a new "green" economy that is sustainable, equitable and accessible to all, including the urgent transition to renewable energy.

2. Emerging issues

Environmental and security issues are becoming increasingly intertwined.

The "environment-security/insecurity nexus" covers such overlapping issues as climate, energy, ecosystem destruction, food, water, health and environmental refugees.

At the Copenhagen climate summit, Bangladesh's Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith said he expected 20 million environmental refugees to be fleeing his country by 2050, and warned that developed countries would have to accommodate many of them. Are those countries ready?

Earth Summit 2012 can develop a new blueprint to address the environmental and security challenges, defining positive and encouraging ways in which people can work together in addressing them.

3. Sustainable development governance

The present global institutions are inadequate to deal with the Earth's major challenges.

As most of the necessary changes are economic in nature, primary responsibility for decision making cannot be made by environmental ministries. They will continue to be vested in the ministries' of finance, development and trade.

To ensure that these decisions have the required environmental input, it is essential that environmental ministries and agencies have a place at the table and the capacities to ensure that the economic decisions will produce the necessary transition to sustainability.

Earth Summit 2012 should agree on strengthening and upgrading the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), which should be the most influential champion of the global environment.

Climate changing

What else should we expect from Earth Summit 2012?

Climate change is the biggest single challenge humans have ever faced. It is the greatest security risk we have ever faced; and as a global phenomenon, we face it together.

Earth Summit 2012 can provide a high-profile forum to complete and sign the comprehensive climate change agreement that must emerge from the wreckage of Copenhagen.

What Copenhagen has shown us is that for an effective summit, we need to follow the Rio model of establishing a separate secretariat and secretary-general for the conference.

This would have the aim and mandate to involve and engage the capacities of the entire UN system, ministers, heads of governments, as well as all key stakeholders.

The number of stakeholders across the field has grown hugely in the years since Rio 1992. The new summit can provide an active demonstration of a participatory democratic model, which brings together all those who can contribute to implementation of the decisions taken.

Common future?

Since 1992, awareness of the Earth's environmental challenges has become universal.

What is lacking is the will of governments to act.

Supported, indeed driven, by an aware and actively committed public, governments must and can act decisively.

Earth Summit 2012 needs to utilise communications media assertively and creatively - to engage the global public in a global conversation on how we are able to live on this "one planet" together.

Earth Summit 2012 presents a unique platform for negotiating the co-operation needed to achieve a new deal between North and South, between rich and poor and between present and future generations. A co-operation that is critical to the future of all people on the planet; and a co-operation that we must achieve.

Maurice Strong was secretary general of the first UN environment conference, in Stockholm in 1972, and of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit

Felix Dodds is executive director of Stakeholder Forum

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Maurice Strong and Felix Dodds? Is the system of multilateral negotiations on environmental issues in crisis? Who is to blame for the stalemate in the global gatherings? Or are you hopeful that the Earth Summit 2012 will provide a much needed breakthrough?

Yes, the multilateral system of global environmental governance is in crisis. The stalemate is due to the greed of developed countries, especially the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and (to a slightly lesser extent) the EU, who care only about their own economies and want to preserve the enormous privileges they have accumulated from raping the planet. Of course it doesn't help that most developing countries (or at least their leaders) now seek to emulate this unsustainable "western" development path. The number of people has nothing at all to do with it - it's how those people choose to live and consume that matters. Rio+20 (or should that be Stockholm+40?) in 2012 will not change anything, because no-one is really looking for solutions - just ways to preserve their national competitive positions. The sad thing about all of this is that we already have all the tools we need to build a sustainable future - but can't muster the political will. Abolishing nation states will be a good start...
Pierre du Plessis, Windhoek, Namibia

It is true that you cannot address environmental issues without looking at sustainable development and more importantly the right of lesser developed countries to pursue 'development' as we see it today. How do we tell emerging economies that they must sacrifice economic growth and the development strategy that was prescribed to so many because developed nations have now become conscious of the environment around them.A development standard has been set and all will try to reach it.Unfortunately it is this very standard that has put us in our current position.
Faith Millington, St.John,Barbados

Despite that I really want to believe that the Earth Summit 2012 will actually achieve concrete results, I am extremely doubtful. The results it will achieve will be moderate at best unless a major climate related calamity strikes a developed nation. The lack of will and the still unfolding economic downturn as well as the enormous vested corporate interests are the main obstacles in achieving any results. Most of the politicians are willing to hold on to their power or are politically impotent, castrated by their dependency on corporate money. Most of all a restructuring on a global scale that will transform the economy from a growth driven to steady-state, sustainable or whatever you want to call it is not going to happen voluntarily. There's no an easy way out.
Bobby DiAngelo, San Francisco USA

The procedures of diplomacy have shown to fall short of the needs to solve environmental problems. It might have worked for world peace, human rights and other crucial issues but definetly those environmental issues that requiere a sincere commitemnt from countries (i.e. delegations that attend these summits and Conferences of the Parties)that through collective action where a portion of the national interest is "sacrificed" for the benefit of the global environmental concern, just doesn´t happen. Each country attends with the political agenda of not allowing any decision that touches any of its economic interets and so the tougher decisions will never be made with the badly needed speed and strength to curb the problems before its too late. Without this, our fishing stocks will collapse, deforestation and climate change unabated, species extinctions unstoppable. Characters like Maurice Strong have made a reputation and living out of making up these inetrnational agreements without much concerns about the chances they have for success: more meetings, more summits, more declarations, more per diems, more carbon emissions from ecah, more frutration from absense of results.
Bernardo Ortiz, Quito, Ecuador

We can make a change. Look for example at the UNPA campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly. It is now already supported by hundreds of parliamentarians from more than 96 countries, several former foreign ministers, prime ministers and also the former UN GS Boutros-Ghali. I really hope we will achiev global democracy in my lifetime. To rescue the planet and the innocent people dying today because of hunger. Please google the UNPA campaign and sign their appeal.
Peter Richter, Vienna/Austria

In 1992 all of the governments agreed at the Rio Earth Summit Conference to develop both National and Local Strategies for Sustainability; and in 2002 that they would all begin to implement their National Strategies by 2005. Unfortunately, some of the most important global programs such as Capacity 21 were phased out by 2002 and the money promised to implement local and national programs in the developing world was not forthcoming. One of the principal outcomes of the Rio Earth Summit 2012 process should thus be to put in place a program and funding to support all countries and communities in developing AND IMPLEMENTING their local and national strategy plans. And the plans should focus on making a complete transition to full sustainability as rapidly as possible. The United States still needs to develop such a plan. Anyone that wants to support this can go to to ask President Obama to act on it. If you would like to support an initiative asking all countries to review progress made and to finally put in place a program to ensure that all countries and communities have developed and are implementing a Sustainability Plan and are striving for full sustainability, then please contact Rob Wheeler, Citizens Network for Sustainable Development, Thanks, Rob
Rob Wheeler, Scotland, PA USA

Creating a more sustainable society and economy sounds good but why is every proposal to do something good for the environment always accompanied by proposals for more taxes? It makes no sense to give more and more of our wealth to government when government has demonstrated time and again that they are a terribly inefficient mechanism for achieving ecological change.
Scott W, Port Orchard, USA

I agree that there has been tremendous success on the awareness and goodwill on the seriousness and urgent need to tackle worserning global environmental conditions since 1992 Rio Summit. There is already significant awareness on the link between the environment and the future quality of life of the human race. However, there has not been success in changing technologies and behaviours mostly industrialization and consumarism that have stressed the reselience of environmental systems in developed countries and aspiring developing countries striving to catch up on the key targets has remained the killer assumption to the quest of the global community to move towards sustainable path on socioeconomic and technological targets. Developed countries have not consumated the real needs, intentions and aspirations of developing countries has evidenced by the tough conditionalities in Kyoto Protocal and recent Capenhagen meeting worsened sometimes by unrealistic demands for financial compensation by developing countries mostly on enviroment related activities that may not make economic sense to the majority of the poor that are dependent exploiting the enviornment for survival and economic empowerment. The link between economic security and environmental conservation in developing countries should be well analyzed and ensure that funding framework will address the factors that lock out the majority mostly the poor from realization of their socieconomic development. The new approaches should include funding mechanisms that that will increase employment and trade in environment sustainable economic activities not filling the pockets of goverment bureucrats and academic projects of NGOs. The compexity of the issues may not be solved by poorly framed funding mechanisms but by long term partnerships with sound structures and multisectoral approaches that will quarrantee success.There no magic bullet to environmental problems as often proclaimed by opportunistic short term proponents and hope the next Rio meeting will open eyes on the realities of the complexity of environmental issues and the level of trust and confidence needed to craft a workable sustanable development path that will be beneficial to the people of developed and developing countries while stabilization of the global conditions.
Joshua Cheboiwo, Eldoret,Kenya

Let me quote from my book :It has to be CLIMATE SUSTAINABILITY" "(from pg 61)..... "Eighteen years ago I boarded a train at the 'Palais des Nations' in Geneva which announced that it was travelling towards the destination of sustainability. A handful of us from the independent sectors of different continents were invited to join this train ride organised by the United Nations. Within the first few minutes of the ride, it was obvious to some of us that the train was not taking us on a journey we envisaged. We realised that we were on the wrong track and were worried about losing sight of the destination as well. Since then many of us continued to demand that this train needs to be placed on the correct track, and that we should proceed towards sustainability through a clear path to avoid being stranded. Today, we are dangerously stranded with possibilities of no return." (from pg 76) ..... "In the run-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, Mr. Maurice Strong, the Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), declared that it was the "last chance to save the earth". 15 years later, the findings of the fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) caution the world that human survival on earth is seriously endangered. The chairman of IPCC Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri recently challenged anyone who says 'what is the point and why take action?" He says that if we start today, we can really make a difference in the next two to three decades. Who should I believe? Or what should I believe? Should I ask myself "when is the last chance to save the earth"? ....." (from pg 77) ..... "International environmental conferences are widely believed to be 'talk shops'. For nearly four decades the UN intergovernmental talk shops have deliberated on saving the earth and implementing sustainable development. But, since then the climate has further deteriorated, hunger in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia has risen, and the global economy has crashed. 'Talking sustainability' has become one of the best practiced actions by the multilateral system and has spread to other sectors as well. People now allege that talking sustainability has become a profitable business for many in civil society, research, government and even industry." ...... What hope can Rio+20 offer? (SEE
Uchita de Zoysa, Nugegoda, Sri lanka

Nice article and I am adding with this, the elements of the Copenhagen Accord include, an agreement to work towards a common, long-term goal to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius and to review the adequacy this commitment in 2015 to take account of new scientific evidence (possibly reducing it to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as proposed by the vulnerable island states and poor countries already experiencing adverse consequences of climate change).Commitments by developed countries to establish and implement targets for greenhouse gas emissions, and by major emerging economies (such as China, India, and Brazil) to implement nationally appropriate mitigation actions and communicate their efforts every two years. Recognition of the importance of acting to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Pledges of $30 billion a year between 2010 and 2012 (and a goal of mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020) to be disbursed primarily through a new Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, for mitigation and adaptation activities to assist the most vulnerable people in South Asia like highly populated country (population more than 15,00,00000) Bangladesh. In fact, it is a matter of regret that why UN don't seem to care about the impacts of green house gases on poor countries like Bangladesh and low-lying islands like the Maldives, that are already losing land and homes due to rising sea levels.
Engr Salam, Kalai,Bangladesh

We certainly need to improve the programming and structural aspects of such negotiations. It is equally important to address other relevant themes, such as population implosion in Europe and population explosion in sub-Saharan Africa and in some countries of Asia and Latin America. Discussing topics like food and water without looking into demographic expansion (or contraction) does not make much sense. I understand that population-related debates may result in unwanted inputs from aggressive religious groups. But dogma, it is important to remember, is no substitute for competent public policies, national or international.
G.P. Carvalho, Alexandria, VA, USA

No government of a nation state will make environmental concessions that will, at least for their tenure as governors of that state, have short-term economic imapcts. No voters will place the environment above their own economic gain - and they will always vote along those lines. Our short-term capitalist-based demoncratic system simply undermines longer-term environmental thinking or planning. It has always been so and will remain so. [Voters may pay lip service to environmental concerns until they are told their taxes will have to be increased to pay for the costs.] Thus, governments simply will not agree to international treaties that will immediately result in them being voted out of power. Socialist economies whose "principal goal [is] to improve the lives of all ... people and to free them from want and ignorance" have been amply shown to fail - unless those people are already rich. These arguments cease to exist once environmental costs become the predominant driver of short-term economics. We may be approaching this point but I am not sure how long it will really take to arrive fully. At this point, economists and politicians can afford to make their decisions - and base their manifestos - on environmental grounds. The larger question is - will this be too late? I fear so. We are human, after all, and to be human is to be flawed. And I believe I have history on my side when I make that last statement.
Stuart, Maputo, Mozambique

What annoys me is the terming of "saving the planet". We are not saving the planet we are in fact saving ourselves through environmental protection measures. Maybe if this was the focus then more people would take action. It seems as though most people see the planet as just animals that they don't care about and green issues are dismissed as "Hippy". If governments starting taking a firm worldwide, longterm, scientific view and put behind petty nationalism and economics then maybe something would be achieved. Without drastic measures now all, or at least most of us, are seemingly doomed to the 4 horsemen. Certainly we will be leaving a smouldering wreck of a planet for generations to come and scratch an existence from. All for what, $1 a gallon?
James Higham, Edinburgh

Good heavens; joined up thinking indeed. The environmental mob can only measure how bad it has got. The guys in suits are driving how bad it is going to get. So this sounds like joined up thinking. The only last frustration is to finally get thes guys far enough back from the wood to see the trees. Climate change - it may be the one attracting most fuss, but it is only one of a whole raft of symptoms. The fundamental underlying problem is the levels of Human Activity. When we can describe the problem accurately - in terms of Human Activity levels - we may finally get onto this Sustainable Life these guys are seeking. But if they continue to talk about one symptom, Global Warming; the guys in suits will simply throw together a few Nuclear Power stations, declare the problem solved, and carry on chainsawing down the rain forest. 98% of solving any problem is first to accurately describe how the problem does what it does. That is the key to solving it. The problem is Human Activity. That's the bit they are still missing putting their fingers on; but they have figured out that "it's got something to do with Economics" - absolutely right; because "Economics" is about "Human Activity" - so yeah, another walk around the block to get that last "Ah Ha !!" moment, and these guys will have finally cracked it ! Yippeeeeee. Steven
steven walker, Penzance

We are to blame - the ordinary citizens who cannot stand yet more taxation, restrictions and lies over so-called 'climate change' The reason for the lack of momentum is that governments are getting itchy because of public opinion swinging against man-made warming - people are starving to death on this planet yet we spend billions on 'climate research' and flying delegates around the world for yet more pointless 'climate change' meetings. Its disgusting.
Ashley Hinton, Didcot, UK

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