23 June 2012

Twenty Wasted Years

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading” is a famous quote by the Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu which has a chilling message for the world today.

At the UN Conference on Environment and Development, more commonly known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 the leaders of the world signed up to a “wide ranging blueprint for action to achieve sustainable development worldwide". The objective was nothing less than a transformation of attitudes and behaviours needed to ensure the maintenance of a healthy planet for the generations to come.

It was clear twenty years ago that we needed to make radical changes if we were to preserve our planet; so what have we done since then? Precious little. In the 20 years since the first Earth Summit our carbon emissions have increased by 40% and the loss of biodiversity has accelerated significantly. Our development is even more unsustainable now than it was back then. According to an assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme only four of ninety goals have been met and unless we can curb our consumption of natural resources then our governments will be presiding over “unprecedented levels of damage and degradation”. Strong words and a clear call to action.

Now however, in the Rio+20 conference which has just concluded you have to wonder whether there is even the same feeble level of commitment as was being shown 20 years ago. True there were 130 heads of state attending the meeting but with Obama, Merkel and Cameron not even bothering to turn up and the Chinese making it clear that they expect the wealthy countries to take the lead in addressing these issues – as they call it “common but differentiated responsibilities” – the chances of any sort of transformation in our behaviours being achieved look vanishingly small. Far from building up what has been achieved, as usually happens at the end of any major international conference, even Nick Clegg who represented the UK there, declared the outcome “insipid”.
European leaders evidently had much more important matters on their minds, with a growth stimulus for the EU being discussed by the French, German, Spanish and Italian leaders. David Cameron grubbing for contracts for British companies in Mexico, while Angela Merkel was prominent in the crowd at the German’s European Championship quarter-final. All good reasons not to attend a conference on the trivial matter of the future of the planet.

At a time when governments are struggling financially though, one positive step you would have thought that they would be prepared to take would be to end the subsidies to fossil fuels which help to drive climate change. With over a trillion dollars being spent by governments to help companies harm the climate – more than 12 times the support for renewable energy the financial and environmental benefits of such a step are clear, but even this proved too much to ask. Our politicians are too deeply in hock to the fossil fuel companies to dare to withdraw their financial support.
So where does this leave us? It is clear the major developed nations are too preoccupied with their financial problems to give adequate attention to the environment and sustainable development. In the absence of financial and you might say, moral, leadership from them it is unrealistic to expect developing nations to take the lead, so it appears the governmental process is at a standstill. Individual issues may still be progressed, but achieving consensus on the broader issues of sustainable development is not going to happen.

It is going to be down to NGO’s and individual actions to lead any change in society. If you believe that we need change, then you are going to have to take it into your own hands to fight for it. Sitting back and expecting our governments to work things out is no longer an option, if it ever was.

Separately, you may be interested in a set of environmental National Report Cards produced by Matt Prescott, an ex Oxford University academic. These rate a countries’ performance on a range of environmental criteria in a similar way to the scoring of credit agencies on financial issues. While far from perfect, the approach highlights some of the important areas on which a country is strong or weak relative to its global peers.

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