Wen Jiabao vows country will play a greater role in the promotion of the green agenda. Chen Weihua reports from Rio de Janeiro – in today’s China Daily.
With its traffic snarl-ups, shantytowns and the breathtaking views from atop Corcovado Mountain with its giant statue of Jesus Christ, the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro — the venue of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20 — is a study in the contrasts and challenges facing sustainable development and a better future.
At the conference, which ended on June 22, the global picture for sustainable development looked depressing. The challenges facing the planet are the most critical in history: pollution, poverty, the population explosion, climate change, desertification, inequality and the loss of biodiversity. Yet, the greatest challenge of all appeared to be the lack of strong global will to accept responsibility and tackle the crisis.
A large part of the problem was that both developing and developed economies were simply not on the same page. While developed nations pushed for a greener economic structure, many developing countries put the reduction of poverty at the top of their agenda, along with other basic social and economic programs. Some believe that developed countries and major corporations are using the green economy as an excuse to pursue profits and manipulate the global economy.
Happy versus unhappy
From the outset, the focus of Rio+20 was the outcome document called The Future We Want, an initiative that is supposed to pilot the world on a path to sustainable development.
However, despite a year of negotiations and days of horse-trading at the conference, nations ultimately remained sharply divided on the text. The Brazilian government, which was responsible for pushing the document through the 193 nations, had to present a watered-down version to ensure it passed prior to the arrival of heads of state and government leaders for the summit. The resulting document prompted both praise and criticism from the 45,000-plus people attending the mega-conference.
The UN hailed the final agreement, saying that it will advance action on sustainable development. Governments, civil society, multilateral development banks and businesses all pledged to help shape a more sustainable future.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who earlier had harsh words about the international community’s lack of commitment, described Rio+20 as providing a solid platform on which to build. “Rio+20 has affirmed fundamental principles, renewed essential commitments, and given us a new direction,” he said.
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff called the outcome document “a great step forward”, adding “I am convinced that this conference will have the effect of bringing about sweeping change.”
Sha Zukang, secretary-general of Rio+20 and UN undersecretary for economic and social affairs, was also full of praise: “I have not the slightest doubt that the outcome document you have adopted will provide an enduring legacy for this historic Rio+20 conference: The Future We Want,” he said.
“You, the world’s leaders, have renewed your political commitment to sustainable development. You signed up to a framework for action that will drive us forward. Together, we can take great pride in this extraordinary accomplishment,” added Sha.
However, despite the official pronouncements, on the final day of the conference Sha was forced to admit that no one was happy with the outcome. “Our job is to make everyone equally unhappy. If one party is happy and others are not happy, then no, he won’t be happy either. Equally unhappy means equally happy,” he said.
One decidedly unhappy sector consisted of NGOs, which voiced their frustration about the outcome document and the conference.
CARE, a humanitarian organization that fights global poverty, said Rio+20 had failed those most in need. “Millions of poor people now have to pick up the pieces from the mess the world leaders left behind here in Rio. World leaders did not come to Rio prepared, and (they) failed to deliver any clear vision or solutions to eradicate poverty and stop environmental degradation,” said Kit Vaughan, CARE’s coordinator of climate change advocacy.
Jim Leape, director-general of the World Wildlife Fund, said Rio+20 was a conference “to address the pressing challenge of building a future that can sustain us”.
“Unfortunately, the world leaders who gathered here lost sight of that urgent purpose. The result is a squandered opportunity — an agreement that does not set the world on a path toward sustainable development,” he said.
China’s hopes and challenges
Meanwhile, the conference made clear that China has become a major stakeholder in sustainable development. “An unsustainable world means an unsustainable China; an unsustainable China means an unsustainable world,” said Veerle Vandeweerd, director of the UN Development Programme’s environment and energy group.
Premier Wen Jiabao was among the 100-plus heads of state who attended the conference. Just hours after his arrival on June 20, Wen said that as a major developing country, China will play a more active role in promoting sustainable development. “Countries must share the common responsibility of protecting our planet, while recognizing that they are at different stages and levels of development,” he said.
Du Ying, head of the Chinese preparatory committee for Rio+20, said that one of the summit’s successes was that it didn’t renege on the principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, such as the principle of “common, but differentiated responsibilities”.
Given its size and rapid growth during the past 30 years, China faces huge challenges in virtually every field of sustainable development discussed at Rio+20, even though the country’s 12th Five-Year Plan has been described as “a green plan”. Wang Weizhong, vice-minister of science and technology, said at the conference that China is slowing its economic growth for the sake of sustainable development.
The China Pavilion in Athletes’ Park, a 10-minute walk from the main venue at Riocentro, hosted many side events about China and received 10,000 visitors. On the last day of the conference, Yin Hong, deputy administrator of the State Forestry Administration, addressed a roomful of visitors and outlined China’s progress during the past 20 years but also emphasized the tough challenges ahead.
She rolled out a blueprint showing specific targets for the expansion of nature reserves, wetlands and forested areas, in addition to plans for the reduction of desertification in China by 2020.
Chinese NGOs and corporations released the first civil society report on the country’s sustainable development over the past 20 years and Chinese college students joined young people from around the globe to tell the world exactly what sort of future they want.
Despite the frustration and disappointment about the lack of progress at the conference itself, one bright spot was the array of more than 500 side events covering sustainable development and ranging from protection of the oceans and public participation.
Nikhil Seth, director of the division for sustainable development at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said that educating the public and spreading the sustainable development message around the world is vital to put the mission into action.
The Sustainable Development Learning course was a capacity-building event, consisting of a number of classes about crucial aspects of sustainable development. Attendees received a certificate after each class.
“This is the place we can exchange and talk about our experiences, get new ideas and pass those experiences onto our country and our region,” said Maryam Safari, head of the international department at the Charitable Institute for Protecting Social Victims.
However, not everybody stayed in the classrooms. Many took to the streets. The biggest protest was staged on June 20 when thousands of protestors — estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000 — marched in the city center. Organized by some 200 grassroots organizations attending the “People’s Summit”, protestors denounced low wages and the plight of indigenous peoples, the deforestation of the Amazon and the unscrupulous entrepreneurs they believe are attempting to hijack the green economy.
In light of the protests emphasizing the lack of confidence in the traditional structures, Zhang Jianyu, head of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Beijing office, questioned whether the traditional multilateral governance framework is still suited to current social conditions. “There is apparently something lacking in this top-down structure when NGOs, corporations and grassroots organizations have to become increasingly active,” he said.
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