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Sanctuary Cover Story June 2012: World Environment Day, June 5, is doubly significant this year since Rio+20 will dominate virtually every nation’s global agenda. Sanctuary gives you a bird’s eye view of the upcoming Rio Summit and its significance.

As we put this story together, the Rio+20 Summit is less than a month away. On May 18-19, the G8 met at Camp David and agreed to tackle climate change. Were they serious? That is the trillion dollar question. Sanctuary delves into the strange worlds of global economics and politics to examine whether this endless climate change meet involves action… or still more hot air?

Rio+20: long tunnel, no light

Only six countries, Brazil, China, India, Italy, Japan and Mexico, have confirmed their presence at Rio as of now. There are unofficial indications that France and Russia will attend and there is a major push within the U.S. to ensure that President Obama attends the summit. If he does, it will be the first time that a U.S. President has been at an Earth Summit since 1992. What a strange world we live in! Despite Obama’s progressive postulations on climate policies, he has shown time and again that he will bend under corporate pressure when push comes to shove. Depressingly, his latest ‘bend’ seems to be the creation of a path for exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic. The world is watching the U.S. with interest and most people do not like what they see. A nation steeped in internal democracy, seems to be revelling in its internationally undemocratic stance on climate change, essentially threatening to take the whole planet down, rather than make even minor changes in lifestyle that would cut carbon and ward of a global crisis that is the fault of a few but everyone’s disaster.

In this miasma of intrigue, the European Union is not exactly covering itself in glory either, irrationally blaming “exorbitant hotel rates” as the reason to reconsider attending the summit. Some suggest that the EU opposes the UN policy to give corporations a large role in the summit, others say that the EU’s financial crisis leaves it between a rock and a hard place in terms of doing the right thing and being pilloried for doing the right thing by their own voters.

This gruesome image of a Laysan Albatross chick reflects the state of the world’s oceans. The stomach contents of this magnificent bird primarily consists of plastic garbage. Credit:USFWS/Duncan Wright

The African Region Preparatory Conference for Rio+20 in 2011 highlighted the imperative of strengthening commitments made in earlier summits with a focus on implementation and international cooperation. Quite justifiably, their position underscores both equity and the right to development of their people. Latin America and the Caribbean held a preparatory meeting in 2011 during which these nations opined that “some of the obstacles to the achievement of sustainable development are the scientific and technological gap, inadequate funding, and fragmentation in the implementation.” The Association of Small and Island States (AOSIS) asked for clarity in terms of commitments and action plans. They wanted a greater focus on the rich biodiversity of their countries and the need for their particularly vulnerable status to be recognised at the summit. The Arab states, of course, are sticking to their obstructionist stance of refusing to take any more commitments until developed nations adhere to theirs! Only Qatar and Morocco have confirmed their attendance at Rio+20. Meanwhile, 300 delegates from 39 countries of the Asian and Pacific region met in Seoul to prepare for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) and emphasised the need for common but differentiated responsibility in tackling climate change.

Is Rio+20 any different from other summits?

After the fiasco of COP15, (China, supported by India, aggressively pushed to nullify all the crucial carbon emission restraining figures as well as the cut-off date of 2020. The global target of 50 per cent emissions cuts by 2050 was discarded and when China even asked for the removal of the 1.50C target, it was saved only when President Nasheed of the Maldives, asked: “How can you ask my country to go extinct?”); the debacle of the Cancun COP16 (a finance deal was struck for developing countries to adapt to climate change and easier transfer of low-carbon technology and expertise but none of the emissions targets were legally binding); and the non-entity that was COP17, (most Presidents and Prime Ministers from the major nations stayed away), how is Rio+20 going to be any different?


A green economy in the context of sustainable development/poverty eradication

What is a green economy? The UN defines it as the intersection between environment and economy. Tied in with sustainable development, a green economy focusses on financial performance with a keen eye on inter and intra generational equity. Check out the UN info graphic current green economy policies at this link https://bit.ly/LBQtoV

Go to https://bit.ly/JMg0fM to read more. For a brief on the seven priority areas chalked out for the Rio+20 summit, visit https://bit.ly/LBQAAB.

On the face of it, Rio+20 outlines its objectives as securing a political commitment to that worn-out cliché ‘sustainable development’. All the right things are said: “We must assess progress towards internationally agreed commitments and new and emerging challenges.” They then proceed to break this lofty ambition down to two, key, nice-sounding themes – a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and an institutional framework for sustainable development. Read more and you learn of seven ‘priority areas,’ namely, decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.

How reassuring. How wonderful all this sounds. But, as every one who will be alive in 2050 knows, and virtually everyone who will be dead by then refuses to acknowledge, unless steps are taken to cut carbon energy today and start the process of bringing humanity’s carbon reflux safely back to earth, dreams of life in 2050 amount to little more than just that… dreams.


Indira Gandhi at the UN Stockholm Earth Summit in 1972 when the issue of ‘sustainable development’ was first articulated. Credit:UN Photo_Yutaka Nagata

The first Earth Summit was held in 1972. The Stockholm Earth Summit recognised protection of the environment as an international issue and outlined the financial and institutional responsibility of each nation. It also led to the formation of the United Nations Environment Programme to address issues such as poverty and economic injustices that lead to environmental problems. It was the first time environmental issues were discussed in an international forum. The Rio Conference in 1992 led to the adoption of several vital agreements among which are the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21 and three streams of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In 2002, in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI), governments realised that the urgent task at hand was to find a way to incorporate sustainable development in all international, national and regional mandates.

Despite past failures, Rio+20 actually represents yet another potential turning point in the fight against climate change. If a miracle were to occur, if the nations of the world actually woke to the fact that we have time, but only just to make that critical u-turn away from a climate holocaust… the planet could possibly heal the mauling we have inflicted on its ‘auto-pilot’ programming. Daniel Mittler, Political Director of Greenpeace International, offers a dire prognosis for Rio+20: “This meeting should be delivering transformational change. What is on the table is business as usual – completely inadequate goals and a total lack of urgency.”

Andy White, Coordinator of the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative adds: “There is nothing in the draft Rio+20 text that even mentions the rights of poor people to their land and their forests, even though we know they are far better custodians of nature than governments or private corporations.” Carl Pope, Former Executive Director and Chairman of the Sierra Club, strikes a somewhat more optimistic note, suggesting that the time is ripe for change – renewable energy options have become more easily available, zero net energy buildings are cheaper and the marginal cost of operating coal plants is, in fact, higher than the cost of wind. In Pope’s view, the negotiations at Durban brought equal participation back on the table post-Copenhagen.

Be that as it may, the road from Rio’s dream-like promises of 1992 to the nightmarish reality of 2012, is littered with appalling evidence of rash and negligent planetary handling. And climate change is clearly the most incriminating evidence of poor planet management.

Rio+20: Voices

Twenty years ago, my father Jacques-Yves Cousteau was at the Rio Summit. One year after the conference, this is what he wrote: “What concrete results were adopted in Rio? A revolutionary programme of badly needed reforms? Of course not! Two timid conventions signed, about biodiversity and global warming, as well as an inflated document, Agenda 21, were immediately criticised by a sarcastic press, still under the influence of industrial lobbies. We must open our eyes, our ears, our hearts!” Twenty years later, I wish I could say that our leaders have heard this alarm call and acted accordingly, responsibly, to ensure sustainability and human dignity. Today, for the Rio+20 summit, all I can do is hope that they will open their eyes to the emergencies we face, before it is too late. – Pierre-Yves Cousteau, IUCN Ambassador https://bit.ly/N67oT5

Many governments advocate a policy of pyramidal economic growth. This model ultimately requires unlimited resources, and an ever-expanding population of consumers. Of necessity it must increase the gap between the rich at the top of the pyramid and the poor at the bottom. We must tackle the issues of unsustainable growth and the growing population. If we do not, we risk losing ever more of the planet’s species, and potentially the web of life that supports us. At Rio the UN can collectively take the actions that will lead to a balance between our needs and those of our environment. Will it have the courage to do so? – Jonathan Shanklin, Meteorologist, British Antarctic Survey https://bit.ly/MVvqCK

President Obama today represents fallen hope. Under siege from the fossil fuel and carbon lobbies, he has capitulated in the worst possible way by abandoning not merely his own people, but an entire world that looked into his eyes and saw everything that President Bush was not. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Obama could have built a legacy that outlived him. History will wonder why he chose not to.

Sanctuary’s magic wand

Sanctuary often asks people what they would do if they had a magic wand. This time we are going to pretend we have one of our own, which we would wave over Rio+20. And this is the news report that would emerge:

Despite the cynicism of doomsday merchants, the leaders gathered at Rio+20 got it right in June 2012. Ignoring power brokers who had held sway over global affairs for over a century, they chose to put the children first. In his closing address to the Assembly President Obama said: “The time for talking is past. The planet is sending us messages that we have ignored long enough. It is likely to send only consequences in the days ahead. The United States is therefore taking the first step in the hope that the United Kingdom, the European Union, Japan, Australia will further the goal… we put most of the carbon into the atmosphere… we are going to dedicate ourselves to taking it down.”

Magic wands aside, irrespective of which country is putting out the carbon, each and every nation is going to be affected, some worse than others, with India falling smack right into the group that will be the hardest hit. While Sanctuary agrees that India cannot take on the burden of the mistakes of Annexe 1 nations, we also understand that protecting the environment is not a choice anymore – it is a survival imperative – and is indeed the key to India’s many developmental issues, most importantly, poverty.


In the lead up to Rio 2012, Greenpeace has released what they would like to see as a result of the discussions. Sanctuary wholeheartedly agrees with the outline and presents snippets from the same. Go to https://bit.ly/LEgaUY to read the entire proposal.

An Agenda for 2012

The outcome document adopted at Rio in 2012 must not be about rewriting the Rio Declaration or the Agenda 21. Instead we need honest stock taking on where we are with the existing commitments and who is responsible for our falling short. This must include addressing the excessive increase in corporate power the world has witnessed since Rio 1992. The limits of voluntary, bottom up approaches given the scale of the challenges must be fully acknowledged.

At Rio de Janeiro in 2012 governments must change the dangerous course we’re on. Sustainable Development Goals should be launched to form the basis of development within planetary boundaries. The time-horizon for the goals should be no longer than two election periods at most, to ensure immediate implementation and avoid gaps in political commitment.

Concretely, governments should commit to the following steps towards a fair and just Green Economy:

1. Fundamentally improved governance, accountability and liability

  • The development of a global instrument that ensures full liability for any social or environmental damage global corporations cause.
  • Agree on creating strong regulation and control of financial markets and introducing restrictions on speculators and speculative products to stop harmful practices that lead to rising resource and commodity prices and an accelerated depletion of natural resources with dramatic consequences for poor people and small economies.
  • Agree to bring the absolute consumption of renewable and non-renewable resources and the impacts of their extraction within planetary boundaries in a fair and equitable manner.

2. Protecting world’s remaining forests by addressing drivers of deforestation

3. Providing clean and safe energy for all

  • Commit to providing access to clean and safe modern energy for all by 2020 and an acknowledgement that decentralised renewable energy is the best way to meet the needs of the poor.
  • Commit to deliver, individually and jointly, sustainable energy action plans that create a level playing field including by phasing out all subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear energy with timebound and socially just transition plans and the introduction of pollution and CO2 pricing for fossil-based energy.

4. Feeding the earth to feed the world

  • Commit to increasing support to small scale food producers and farming communities, who are essential in feeding the world.
  • Agree to set ambitious national targets for reducing consumption of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and to promote and incentivise the wider uptake of ecological alternatives.

5. Filling the gaps in oceans governance and stopping overfishing

  • Commit to cutting overcapacity of the world’s fishing fleets and providing priority access to fish resources for low-impact small-scale fisheries.
  • Implement a global network of Marine Reserves.

6. Eliminating hazardous chemical use

Useful Policy Documents

U.K. Vision Document https://bit.ly/JSpO5S

The Indian government on Sustainability https://bit.ly/JSpQuE

The Access Institute: Rio+20: Moving from Principles to Rights https://bit.ly/K9M4Pc https://bit.ly/K9M5CB


At Rio, Sanctuary would like to see 1) a strong framework that outlines how countries will work towards a sustainable future at a national and regional level; 2) a recognition of the value of the natural world and the institutionalisation of systems to evaluate the monetary benefits of protecting ecosystem services; and 3) a firm commitment from developed nations to assist developing countries to work on climate change. Above all, following up on promises and agreements is key. In 2009, the G20 agreed to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. This would have been a huge step towards solving the climate crisis. However, corporate polluters prevailed and not a single nation kept its word.

The summit must include a discussion on youth participation and how this can be increased to the level where young people are actually involved in the negotiations rather than standing outside requesting to be heard. There must be a clear path for involvement of indigenous people. There must be greater focus on preserving their cultures and recognising their ties to the natural world. It must also consider an intergovernmental committee, like the IPCC, to devise a system to evaluate the worth of ecosystems – a structure that countries can use to estimate their natural wealth.

Marine biodiversity must not be overlooked. As suggested by Greenpeace, a global network of marine reserves must be created. There must also be a discussion on nuclear energy and its dangers and how it fits or does not fit into the energy mix envisioned for the world.

Forests such as the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve are India’s best climate defences – they take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it on land, something that no human technology can realistically hope to achieve in the forseeable future. Will India utilise her ecosystems to fight climate change and alleviate poverty or will she follow the mindless “development” path of the West? Credit:Dr. Anish Andheria

It is vital that Rio+20 recognises that environmental issues and development are one and the same.

Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, says it best: “The future I want for my daughter is fair, peaceful, just and green. The fair green economy I want is one that provides sustainable livelihoods for all while fully respecting ecological limits – our planetary boundaries. The energy future I want is efficient and renewable. I grew up by the sea, so the future I want is one where our seas are abundant with life, over-fishing is ended and 40 per cent of the world´s oceans have been turned into marine reserves. May governments listen and deliver real transformation at the Rio Earth Summit this June: An energy revolution, zero deforestation and healthy oceans – that´s the future I want to leave for my child.”

Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 3, 2012


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