Rio+20 – China pledges green support

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.

Side events

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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Rio+20: Earth summit dawns with stormier clouds than in 1992

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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Rio + 20 : Montreal student Jessica Magonet heads to conference


Montrealer Jessica Magonet was not even born when the first Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro 20 years ago this month.

But next week, when nations meet again for the 20th anniversary of that watershed United Nations conference, Magonet won’t be letting her youth stop her from demanding the world pay attention to her cause.

Magonet, 19, is part of a 14-member youth delegation from across Canada heading to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio + 20, Wednesday to Friday. They will demand that protection of polar regions be among the global commitments that come out of the conference, and that indigenous peoples be involved in development decisions.

Magonet, a law student at McGill University, thinks it’s fitting that young people set part of the agenda at Rio + 20.

“Sustainable development is all about caring about people who are not here yet, so I hope we can represent that symbolically,” she said.

The first Earth Summit brought 172 countries together to create a blueprint for a better world, one with equal rights, less poverty and a healthier environment. Although hopes were high afterward, a recent assessment of progress on 90 environmental goals found that significant progress had been made on only four since 1992.

The world has managed to eliminate production and use of substances that deplete the ozone layer, remove lead from fuel, improve access to clean water and increase research on marine pollution. But the assessment, called the Global Environmental Outlook and released this month, showed that little or no progress has been made on such critical issues as climate change, desertification and drought.

The slow progress since the first Rio conference does not discourage Magonet.

“We have a lot of energy and we are not cynical. We have hope. … This seems to be a very political generation, actually … and with what’s happening at the federal level, people who may have been quiet up until now are becoming more vocal.”

Magonet was referring to Bill C-38 and the sweeping changes it will bring to environmental legislation. She is also concerned that Canada will soon be chairing the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body responsible for Arctic governance that includes representatives of Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and the U.S.

“The current federal government does not have a great environmental record … so there is big concern as Canada is taking over as chair.”

Magonet said her delegation wants the world to recognize that the polar regions are threatened by oil drilling, mining, fishing and marine traffic, and that attention must be focused on sustainability now, before it’s too late.

“A lot of these regions are not governed by any laws because nobody goes there, so there is concern there will be a free-for-all, with no limit on the type or number of ships that can pass through there.

Indigenous people also must be involved in the sustainable development of these regions.”

Magonet became fascinated with the Arctic when she visited Kuujjuaq and sailed up the east coast of Baffin Island with an organization called Students on Ice in 2010. She was inspired by meeting Inuit elders, hearing their concerns and fears about climate change, and learning from biologists and glacier experts about how the region is changing.

“Visiting the Arctic makes climate change so visceral and human, because what’s happening there is so shocking. They are already talking about adaptation; they’ve had to move beyond prevention and try to live with this new environment.”

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Rio+20 … A green economy without poverty

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.

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How to create resilient agriculture

Diagram showing aspects of sustainable develop...
Diagram showing aspects of sustainable development as Ecology, Economy and Society bounded by Environment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the UN Conference on Sustainable Development comes into sight, the very real challenge of balancing the needs of the world’s food need with the environment rears its head… The Environmental News Network reports. 

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