Rio+20: Will the Option be the Usual Crisis, or a Far Greater One?
On June 4-6 next year, the Earth Summit (formally the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development or UNCSD) will trace the road back to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, 20 years after the high-level conference made historic commitments to saving the planet. But Rio+20, as the meeting is informally called, is happening at a time that the world is facing unprecedented environmental and economic crises, which have only embarrassed the concept of sustainable development that the UN adopted in 1992.
The Brundtland Commission (formally the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Norway Prime Minister Ms. Gro Harlem Brundtland) presented its report Our Common Future to the UN General Assembly in 1987. The report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It led to the decision of the UN to convene the Earth Summit in 1992 (formally the UN Conference on Environment and Development or UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. What Rio did was to establish that economic development, social development and environmental protection are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and called these the “pillars of sustainable development.” Rio 1992 produced its banner programme Agenda 21 as well as landmark policies including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). But after two decades, 44 UN institutions on the environment, 500 multilateral agreements on the environment, numerous programmes on poverty and the environment, and trillions of US dollars in funding, Rio is obviously failing to deliver.
The number of hungry people has reached more than a billion for the first time in history. Poverty is worsening, with more than 40% of global population living on less than US$2 a day. In the last three years alone, the hunger and poverty situation has deepened as prices of food commodities have increased steeply and simultaneously, and along with other commodities such as oil and energy, in the longest and broadest inflation after the Second World War. The planet is confronted with loss of biodiversity, water depletion and pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, and other serious ecological problems. It is endangered by a changing climate from the continuous emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which intensifies the crisis that the world is already facing. The global economy is going through a protracted depression.
More than institutional reforms, however, such as changes in governance, the UN system and the like, global leaders must come to recognise at this point that the concept of sustainable development has only been a weak undercurrent to the mainstream of neoliberal globalisation. Today’s global problems – food crisis, climate crisis, ecological crisis, economic crisis – are all brought about by the reckless, profit-oriented patterns of production and consumption that neoliberal globalisation has intensified for decades. By now it should be clear to all that these systemic patterns are unsustainable and hindrance to genuine development. The road back to Rio therefore cannot be less of a counter flow to the unbridled plunder of the Earth’s resources.
The resounding call of multilateral organisations led by the UN as well as US President Barack Obama is that “business-as-usual” is not an option. But the theme of Rio+20 is “green economy”, which is conspicuously an effort to come up with creative solutions while continuing to walk on the old capitalist road. Is Rio+20 reversing from the much-criticised “mainstreaming the environment” only to end up “greening the mainstream”, which is capitalism?
Expectations are high on Rio+20, especially among the direct producers – those who are reliant on natural resources to survive, such as farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, women and grassroots advocates. But this early, green economy, which is placed in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, painfully ignores the essential issues in agriculture. Rio+20 could be the Earth’s final hour, and indeed there can no longer be compromises.