John Vidal, Environment Editor of the Guardian who was in Rio for the ’92 Earth summit, looks back at that momentous event, and how the 2012 version compares
Helicopters thundered up and down the chic Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Tanks guarded the bridges and tunnels. The favelas were in lockdown, schools closed and supermarkets stood empty. Unexpectedly, President George H W Bush, flush with success at the collapse of communism, had arrived in Rio de Janeiro for the 1992 Earth summit, the UN’s epic conference on environment and development.
The graffiti that I read on the streets of Rio read “Yanqui go home”, but the world had seen nothing like this before; after years of planning, 109 heads of state, 172 countries, 2,500 official delegates, and about 45,000 environmentalists, indigenous peoples, peasants and industrialists came together for the summit. The Dalai Lama meditated with Shirley Maclaine on the beach at dawn, Jane Fonda turned up, as did Pelé, Fidel Castro, great train robber Ronnie Biggs and an obscure US senator called Al Gore.
On a wave of concern about the state of the world, presidents, prime ministers and even two kings signed up to a legally binding convention on biodiversity, a climate change agreement that led to the Kyoto protocol, a 6,000-page blueprint for action, a six-page philosophical paper linking poverty to environmental degradation, initiatives on forests and new principles to guide world development.
The milestone summit set the global green agenda for 20 years and took only a few days for leaders to negotiate. Nowadays, when it takes 15 years to arrive at nowhere in climate negotiations, it seems extraordinary.
Twenty years later, Rio is bursting again and on maximum security alert for the follow-up conference, billed as the biggest UN event ever organised. This time, 15,000 soldiers and police are guarding about 130 heads of state and government, as well as ministers and diplomats from 180 countries and at least 50,000 others.
But Rio+20 is full of absences. Francois Hollande will be there for France, but Obama, Cameron, Merkel and most other G20 leaders are snubbing it. In 1992, Britain sent newly elected PM John Major, his environment secretary Michael Howard and two other ministers. This time its delegation includes businesses and is led by deputy PM Nick Clegg, with just one other minister. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) will be represented only by senior officials.
The excuse given is that the summit is overshadowed by the deepening global financial crisis. The real reason may be that the days of hope and idealism are over. Rich countries have little new to offer and China,Brazil, India and other rapidly emerging economies are now in the development driving seat.
Instead of the ambitious, legally binding conventions on offer in 1992, countries have only been asked to lay the foundations for the next 20 years. The UN wants Rio to endorse a UN “green economy roadmap” with environmental goals, targets and deadlines. Developing countries, led by Colombia, prefer new “sustainable development goals” to better protect the environment, guarantee food and power to the poorest, and alleviate poverty. But withnegotiations now effectively over, there is still no political consensus, the poor are mistrustful of the rich and groups like Oxfam fear that new goals could get mixed up with the existing millennium development goals.
Getting any agreement at all has proved hard. UN chiefs and the Brazilians are upbeat but sqaubbling governments have fought bitterly over the lead that the rich should give and the money the poor should receive to help them out of destitution. Just as in 1992, when Bush declared that “the American way of life is not negotiable” and reduced the aid package to developing countries to a paltry £6bn, so in 2012 US negotiators, backed by the EU and the G20, have told developing countries to accept the “new global reality” and have refused to give way.
But no one in Rio doubts that the talks are even more urgent than in 1992. UNEP director Achim Steiner has warned that pollution is killing millions of people a year, ecosystem decline is increasing, climate change is speeding, and soil and ocean degradation is worsening. “If current trends continue … then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation. Earth systems are being pushed towards their biophysical limits,” he said.
“This is urgent. As the people with the least struggle to survive, the consumption habits of the richest are stripping the earth of its resources. The situation is dire. We cannot go on living beyond the earth’s boundaries. The people suffering are the poorest. These are issues that will affect us all for ever,” said Dame Barbara Stocking, Oxfam director.
But in the absence of government action, any ambition and optimism is expected to come from the parallel “people’s summit”, the myriad non-governmental groups and the many business meetings which have already started.
According to Marina Sylva, former Brazilian environment minister and presidential candidate, Flamingo park in the centre of Rio, where thousands of peasants and social movements are now camping and meeting, should become “the Tahrir square” of NGOs, the disposessed, the indigenous communities, and human rights, ecological and other social justice activists, all wanting more radical change to the world’s economic system to protect the earth. For them, the world leaders in the Rio centro meeting halls only offer green capitalism, nature for sale and more of the same unequality.
She said: “They cannot lower expectations in the face of a crisis worsening every day. I hope that Rio+20 will become the Tahrir square of the global environmental crisis and that public opinion will be able to tell leaders that they cannot brush off the science.”
Excerpts of the speech given by George H W Bush at Rio 1992
“Let’s face it, there has been some criticism of the United States. But I must tell you, we come to Rio proud of what we have accomplished and committed to extending the record on American leadership on the environment. In the United States, we have the world’s tightest air quality standards on cars and factories, the most advanced laws for protecting lands and waters, and the most open processes for public participation.
“Now for a simple truth: America’s record on environmental protection is second to none. So I did not come here to apologise. We come to press on with deliberate purpose and forceful action. Such action will demonstrate our continuing commitment to leadership and to international co-operation on the environment.
“There are those who say that it takes state control to protect the environment. Well, let them go to eastern Europe, where the poisoned bodies of children now pay for the sins of fallen dictators, and only the new breeze of freedom is allowing for clean-up.
“Today we realise that growth is the engine of change and a friend of the environment. Today an unprecedented era of peace, freedom and stability makes concerted action on the environment possible as never before.”
Excerpts from Fidel Castro’s 1992 Rio speech
“An important biological species – humankind – is at risk of disappearing due to the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural habitat. We are becoming aware of this problem when it is almost too late to prevent it. It must be said that consumer societies are chiefly responsible for this appalling environmental destruction.
“With only 20% of the world’s population, they consume two-thirds of all metals and three-fourths of the energy produced worldwide. They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air. They have weakened and perforated the ozone layer. They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer.
“The forests are disappearing. The deserts are expanding. Billions of tons of fertile soil are washed every year into the sea. Numerous species are becoming extinct. Population pressures and poverty lead to desperate efforts to survive, even at the expense of nature.
“Unequal trade, protectionism and the foreign debt assault the ecological balance and promote the destruction of the environment. If we want to save humanity from this self-destruction, wealth and available technologies must be distributed better throughout the planet. Less luxury and less waste in a few countries would mean less poverty and hunger in much of the world.”
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- Twenty years later, will world make good on Rio Earth Summit’s ‘broken promises’? – msnbc.com (worldnews.msnbc.msn.com)
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Wellington, New Zealand – Less than a month before world leaders meet at a major environmental summit, a new report warns that New Zealand is failing to protect some of its iconic species and habitats following a series of broken promises made at the Earth Summit 20 years ago.
‘Beyond Rio’ is released today by global conservation organisation WWF ahead of next month’s meeting on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, the location of the groundbreaking 1992 Earth Summit. At the historic summit New Zealand signed up to a series of agreements to tackle climate change, conserve biodiversity and live more sustainably.
However WWF’s report reveals the nation is falling short on important commitments made on greenhouse gases, water quality, land and marine biodiversity, fisheries and education for sustainability.
Chris Howe, Executive Director of WWF-New Zealand said, “Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, is now a land of polluted rivers and lakes, rising greenhouse gas emissions, pressured marine ecosystems and disappearing bird and mammal species.
“While it is important for the government to constructively engage in the upcoming summit, we should not lose sight of the many commitments that already exist. If New Zealand’s political leaders had made good on the promises made back in 1992, then we wouldn’t be faced with such a battle to turn things around. ”
Key findings of the report include:
- Increased pollution in our lakes and rivers, including 43 per cent of monitored lakes in NZ now classed as polluted and an estimated 18,000-34,000 people annually catching waterborne diseases.
- More than 60 per cent of native freshwater fish as well as the only freshwater crayfish and mussel species are now threatened with extinction.
- Seven of New Zealand’s ten official ‘indicator species’ for measuring biodiversity status are threatened. The Kokako, for example, has suffered a 90 per cent contraction in its range since the 1970s.
- Iconic species such as Maui’s dolphins and NZ sea lions are listed as ‘nationally critical’. Only an estimated 55 Maui’s over the age of one year remain and NZ sea lion pup numbers have halved over the past 12 years at their main breeding area in the Auckland Islands.
- Almost two-thirds of New Zealand’s seabird species are listed as threatened with extinction. The main threats to seabirds are predation by introduced mammals, fishing methods and human disturbance.
- New Zealand’s gross emissions have risen by 20% since 1992, due to increased pollution from energy, transport, agriculture and industry sectors. Even with our weakened Emissions Trading Scheme, emissions are projected to continue to rise.
Although the picture looks bleak, the report points to solutions that can help New Zealand improve its environmental record and restore integrity to its international commitments.
“Solutions do exist to the problems we face, but the political will has been sorely lacking,” said Chris Howe. “As world leaders prepare to meet again in Rio this June, we urge John Key’s government to heed this report’s wake up call and, regardless of new agreements, take immediate steps honour our existing international commitments.”
“New Zealand’s future social and economic well-being is dependant on functioning and flourishing ecosystems. Sustainability must be put at the heart of decision-making to ensure a future where people live in harmony with nature.”
For more information contact:
Rosa Argent, WWF-New Zealand Communications Manager, firstname.lastname@example.org, 04 471 4292 / 027 212 3103
- NZ fails to meet Earth Summit commitments- report (radionz.co.nz)
- NZ fails to act on environmental vows (stuff.co.nz)
- WWF Says New Zealand Is Polluted (naturenplanet.com)
- Report questions NZ’s environment action (nzherald.co.nz)
- NZ says woeful green report card misleading (abc.net.au)
- Report questions NZ’s environment action (junkscience.com)
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- World’s Smallest Dolphins Almost Extinct (huffingtonpost.com)
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In June 2012, Brazil will host the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20. China Daily reports.
The time is right: there are clear signs that the current development models must be reformulated.Countries - regardless of their wealth - face serious economic and financial crises, socialinequality, hunger, unemployment, losses in biodiversity and climate change. These multiple crisespoint to the timely and urgent need to implement sustainable development models: national projectsthat take a balanced and integrated approach to economic growth, social inclusion andenvironmental protection.
Rio+20 will be an opportunity to hold this discussion at the highest level. The conference will befundamentally different from its predecessor, Rio 92. The summit held 20 years ago representedthe final stages of long negotiation processes that culminated in the signing of important documentsand conventions. While Rio 92 was a destination point, Rio+20 may be considered a point ofdeparture. Rio+20 looks to the future, building a new sustainable development agenda.
One of Brazil’s priorities in Rio+20 will be discussing the eradication of poverty and thestrengthening of financial and technological flows in order to implement sustainable developmentcommitments, which require significant public, private and political resources.
The Rio+20 agenda is organized around two major subjects. The first is a green economy in thecontext of sustainable development and poverty eradication. On this, a general agreement has beenemerging among the different countries on a few aspects: there is not one single model for a greeneconomy; and one must not think about a green economy without taking into account theeradication of poverty, that is, without pursuing social inclusion goals.
Each country will create its own green economy design, based on its national realities, theresources available, and the development challenges it faces. In Brazil, for example, the greeneconomy will be based on the widespread use of renewable energy, as well as on effectivelycombating deforestation and raising income levels for millions of Brazilians. The adoption of asingle standard green economy for all nations could potentially create distortions, such as tradebarriers, which would deepen the disparities among countries, aggravating social problems,particularly in developing countries.
The second subject is governance for sustainable development. In other words, it is necessary toadapt the framework of the UN system so as to strengthen multilateralism, reduce the democraticdeficit and provide greater integration among the social, economic and environmental aspects ofsustainable development.
Rio+20 may decisively contribute to tackling global warming, because sustainable development isthe best answer to the challenges associated with climate change. Brazil, China and the otherpartners of the BASIC Group, South Africa and India, have played a key role in the recent DurbanConference, contributing, through their leadership, to the achievement of positive results. Thanks toDurban, the conditions are now set for a constructive exchange on global warming at Rio+20,which could potentially strengthen the international system regarding climate change. This shouldclearly be achieved without duplicating intergovernmental negotiations, whose legitimate forum isthe United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The world looks to Brazil, the host of Rio+20, for leadership. We will not shy away from this task,for which we have solid credentials, bearing in mind our experience in areas such as clean andrenewable energies, as well as inclusive economic growth policies. Brazil has demonstrated that itis possible to grow and to include, while protecting and preserving.
As Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff mentioned in January 2012, at the World Social Forum inPorto Alegre: after Rio+20, we want the word ”development” to always be associated to theadjective ”sustainable”.
The author is the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
- Green economy a key sticking point in Rio+20 talks (devex.com)
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- What’s the Agenda for the Rio+20 Conference? (thegoodhuman.com)
- Rio+20 (slideshare.net)
- Youth Involvement Surges In Lead Up To Rio+20 Earth Summit (thinkprogress.org)
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- Rio+20 talk point: your message to the summit on the future you want (bfreenews.com)
- UNCTAD rolls trade message for Rio+20 Summit (ghanabusinessnews.com)
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In June 2012, experts will meet to set the agenda for a sustainable future at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Earth Summit 2012). The summit is also known as Rio+20 because it is being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 20 years on from the first momentous Earth Summit which also took place there.
Your questions and comments will form an important part of these discussions, which will be webcast live from the Natural History Museum in spring 2012. Find out about the 4 debate themes below and get involved.
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- UN chief: ‘with 7 billion people we’ve run out of new forests and rivers’ (guardian.co.uk)
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- Twenty Years of Climate Meetings, Through the Eyes of a Veteran Journalist – Discover Magazine (blog) (blogs.discovermagazine.com)
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- UN regrets Canada’s Kyoto withdrawal – Sydney Morning Herald (news.smh.com.au)