Rio+20 – what does the future hold now?

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As world leaders gather in Doha for the UN Climate Change Summit; our CEO, James Curran, tells us why he was disappointed with Rio+20 this summer, but remains optimistic for the future.

In June 1992, representatives of 172 governments came together in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for a ground-breaking United Nations Summit meeting on environment and development. Dubbed ‘The Earth Summit’, Rio resulted in the publication of Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Statement of Forest Principles, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The summit’s message — that nothing less than a transformation of our attitudes and behaviour would bring about the necessary changes — was transmitted by almost 10,000 on-site journalists and heard by millions around the world. It was an exciting and optimistic time, and the commitment of governments around the world to addressing the biggest environmental challenges of the day seemed both real and tangible.

Fast forward twenty years, and the world’s governments were again in Brazil, at the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development. The biggest UN conference ever, it was billed as a major step forward in reducing poverty, advancing social equity and ensuring environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet – in short, achieving a sustainable future. From 26 November to 7 December, global leaders will again meet, this time in Doha, to consider progress on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and what more needs to be done. So what does the scorecard actually look like since those optimistic commitments in 1992?

Unfortunately, it is generally agreed that the Rio+20 Conference failed in its major aims. That failure has been put down largely to our current obsession with the globally precarious economic position. The frustrating thing for many of us is that all the effort seems to be going into returning our economy back to the position which created the crash in the first place. There seems to be a distinct lack of new thinking, which was a key characteristic of the original Rio conference, and which Rio+20 needed to continue.

The crash was precipitated, at least in part, by unprecedented borrowing reliant on over-optimistic forecasts of future revenue and growth. Has anything fundamentally changed? Maybe not. It’s been stated recently that the major oil, gas and coal companies are reporting unexploited fuel reserves worth up to $27 trillion on their books. The global economy has already factored this into its forecasts. But there is at least one substantial fly in that economic ointment.

Under the Copenhagen Accord, a total of 167 countries have agreed that a global warming of 2°C is dangerous and must be avoided. We know that today we have warmed our planet by around 0.8°C. In order to avoid catastrophic warming, it is generally agreed that we can add no more than a further 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But those oil, gas and coal reserves are equivalent to a staggering 2,800 billion tons of carbon dioxide – five times the limit to keep climate change from becoming dangerous.

So we have a global economy apparently complacently accounting for future wealth from unexploited oil, gas and coal, but blind (or at least silent) to the possible implications for our planet of the ensuing severe damage, and costs, of climate change.

Let’s look closer to home for a moment. We know that the environment in Scotland provides us with so-called ecosystem services. These are freely supplied services, of direct benefit to us, such as insects to pollinate crops, water to drink and use for industry, wetlands to reduce flooding, soil to grow crops, rivers which dilute and break down effluents, and so on. These services have been conservatively estimated as being worth £23 billion per year – and that’s just in Scotland. That’s equivalent to around one quarter of GDP. But, unfortunately, it has also been found that over 40% of these ecosystem services are in decline.

So we seem to have a global economic system that consumes finite natural resources, and also feeds on ecosystem services, but does little or nothing – or certainly not enough – to restore, replenish or protect them. This isn’t a rational approach. It can’t last. It isn’t sustainable. It’s exactly what Rio predicted twenty years ago, and what Rio+20 was meant to resolve.

Nobody would deny that we are in the grips of an unprecedented global economic crisis. But in our drive to rebuild that failed and failing economic model we mustn’t lose sight of the aspirations of the original Earth Summit. We must seek, here in Scotland and elsewhere, an economy which doesn’t just use resources, but endlessly reuses them – a closed loop economy. It’s a people-intensive approach, which provides good, worthwhile employment. It also provides security of resources, which in a world of intensifying material scarcity is an attractive proposition. It is innovative, creating new designs and new products and services. It is energy-hungry as well, but can be fuelled, especially here in Scotland, using renewable and low carbon sources.

In Scotland we have the most ambitious climate change legislation in the world, ambitions to be a zero-waste nation, and have a government with a central objective of a nation flourishing through sustainable economic growth. So we have an opportunity to build a new economic reality here, one that will genuinely last. But, as Albert Einstein famously said, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. That would have been a useful lesson at Rio+20, and I very much hope it will be the approach our governments take in Doha. We really do need new thinking for a new future.

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