“It’s better than nothing.” This was the general resigned tone of the remarks heard at the conclusion of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro on June 22nd, 2012. Others echoed a bleaker outlook, proclaiming that the past twenty years of large UN conferences had merely resulted in the pointless exercise of talking the talk without walking the walk ad infinitum. The result from the countless preparatory meeting sessions and tedious negotiations is Resolution 66/288 – The Future We Want. All UN member states adopted the resolution document which serves, amongst other things, as the foundation for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In 2012 the Global Compact raised a lot of attention, as the face of businesses at Rio+20, and consequently in the media. The United Nations body sets sustainability principles for the world’s corporate elite. Only recently the Compact even held a workshop for journalists to be part of the Compact’s advocacy of sustainable business practices, writes Guardian’s sustainability evangelist Jo Confino. A striking call to delve more deeply into the Compact’s strategy.
As the summer is coming to a close for those in the Northern Hemisphere and the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games are now behind us, we cannot help but anticipate the excitement that will ensue in another four years in the shimmering landscape of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Being the first South American city to ever host the Olympic Games we had the opportunity to witness the transformation of a city during the Rio+20 Earth Summit preparing to host 2014 FIFA World Cup Games and 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The series of mega events brings Brazil’s will to become a modern economic powerhouse on the center stage of the international developing community. However, Brazil’s success is threatened by how it will resolve its social and environmental problems, and maybe most important the public’s fear to its blood shed routines in their urban landscape. On picturesque mountains of Rio de Janeiro scale favelas or shanty towns in organized chaos of urban areas.
This article is co-written by Tim Lehmann. “We recognize the severity of the global loss of biodiversity…” says paragraph 197 in the The Future We Want declaration. The same can be said for media-diversity, particularly in print. “Breakthrough in Rio+20!“ is a headline you would not find in any mainstream news outlet. Indeed, the declaration more closely resembles a 50-page work of art, merely painting a picture of importance without actually making commitments characteristic of a historical document. Nevertheless, the general media missed the point of Rio+20 in various ways, arriving too late, as most of them arrived just for the last 3 days, and with headlines already prepared in mind to be filled with celebrity statements. Sorting through some of the mainstream news with similar dramaturgy, we extracted the following predictable key statements:
The final declaration is weak. An article in the center-right newspaper Economist is titled “Many ‘mays’ but few ‘musts’ – a limp agreement at the UN’s vaunted environment summit”. There is no historical breakthrough. Editors of the center-left German Sueddeutsche Zeitung justify the unnecessariness of Rio: “If all countries are satisfied with the lowest common denominator, if they no longer want to discuss what needs to be discussed …, then the dikes are open. There is no need anymore for a conference of 50,000 attendees. Resolutions that are so wishy-washy can be interpreted by every member state as they wish. No one needs Rio.”
Since the end of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the general sentiment on the outcome has not been very positive, to say the least. It has been described as anything from “disappointing” to “a failure of epic proportions.” If there is any optimism to be offered, it is in the voluntary actions taken by civil society and businesses. But an outlook of a collective, global agenda towards sustainable development largely looks grim. Is global sustainable development even possible?
Flashy ultra-modern generators of large-scale employment and big government contracts, urban rail projects have long been the darlings of ribbon-cutting, crony-friendly politicians. However, as the Brazilian city of Curitiba and the visionary planning of architect-turned-politician Jamie Lerner demonstrate, sound planning combined with creative deployment of public transport’s humble workhorse—the bus—can have tremendous impact. Leadership in a particular industry or sector does not depend on superior access to resources or greater depth of experience. “The two things you really need are a breakthrough idea and persistence”, says an emphatic Leny Toniolo, advisor at Curitiba’s Environmental Secretary, who met with me at Athletes’ Park during the Rio+20 summit in June. Athlete’s Park Curitiba exhibition booth, Riocentro; Source: Student Reporter. The populations of major urban centers in the developing world have been increasing at an accelerating rate. Brazil is no exception. As populations grow, so does the need to move people into and out of cities.
When I walked into pavilion 1 at the Riocentro on my first day at Rio+20, I passed a large white exhibitions space which was labelled ” The Future We Want.” I glanced at the big blue word clouds and five large TV screens – “What future do we actually want?,” I asked myself. The cynic in me felt there was no need to answer that question because even if we could agree that the future must be a more sustainable, prosperous one for all, politicians from all over the world, partially with completely different backgrounds, capabilities and ideals, representing conflicting needs and interests, won’t be able to agree upon a shared, long-term vision for the future anyway. My optimistic side countered that in the last 100 years alone humanity has overcome two world wars, ended apartheid in South Africa, escaped total nuclear destruction and developed the internet, among other things. Anything’s possible, if you work hard on it, I thought. Little did I know that just hours later I would be revisiting some of these questions about the “The Future We Want” in a conversation with the exhibition’s co-creators, Jonathan Arnold and Bill Becker. At a panel on ”Sustainable Lifestyles 2050,” Bill was a panelist and spoke about the importance of a strong intergenerational relationship to help the young members of society implement their ideas for a sustainable future.
Although China dominates in the race to be the leading global manufacturer of clean renewable energy, they are not necessarily doing the most for the environment. China, consistently pushing the clean energy market towards an economic future, was expected to be a leading developing country in negotiations at Rio+20. As they lap the United States and world economies in this race by training a skilled clean energy workforce and providing steep subsidies more and more manufacturing companies are heading overseas. The US simply cannot compete. If the US does not demonstrate a greater sense of urgency to contrive alternative clean energy policies coupled with investment initiatives, it will fall further behind economically.
A new call to action is rising from the corporate world. “If we wait for a policy enabling environment, we will be waiting a long time,” says Stuart Hart, Professor at Cornell University and Director of the Indian Institute for Sustainable Enterprise. “It is our job as innovative entrepreneurs to design and develop new models. The problem with the government is that it can create incentives; however, it cannot create new models.” The world’s problems are social and environmental and they are mostly centered in the developing world.
Why agriculture? Having realized that consuming local foods is not always environmentally-preferable to consuming imported products (see my last post), what else can I do to save the planet as a conscious consumer? Obviously, I go for organic food. And as the number of fellow conscious consumers has significantly increased the last decade or so, aggregate demand for organic foods and drinks (OFD) has followed suit. In fact, the global market for OFD has more than tripled between 1999 and 2009 (see Figure 1).
I had the opportunity to attend “Taste of Change,” a well orchestrated dinner that engaged farmers, NGOs, UN Officials, intellectuals and Swiss government officials. The dinner commemorated the partnership between the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation SDC, Biovision and the Millennium Institute, which exists in order to bring about sustainable agricultural and development practices. The dinner was co-hosted by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), Shumei, the Sustainable Food Trust and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). In order to showcase the collaboration of the organizations, the hosting organizations brought together a celebrity chef and a local farmer to develop the menu. One of the best organic food chefs, Chef Domencia Catelli, a Northern Californian who has cooked for celebrities like Julia Roberts and Lady Gaga, worked with fifth generation Japanese-Brazilian farmer, Flavio Fujita, who farms only organic produce. Together they developed a menu that was strictly vegetarian and with explicit local produce.
Article is co-written by Tim Lehmann. In the face of global catastrophic climate change, emptying natural resources and worldwide scarcity, the United Nations Environmental Programme needs an upgrade, or so argued Nick Nuttall, United Nations Development Programme (UNEP) spokesperson at Rio+20 (see interview at the bottom). For too long, the environmental and social pillars of sustainable development have tip -toed along behind the economic pillar. The ambition to deliver full sustainable development is still a long way behind reality. One problem is that UNEP lacks universal membership, with only about 30 percent of UN countries involved, which seems to be inappropriate in an era in which we have acknowledged the international scope of environmental problems. Nutall argues that a stronger UNEP will increase capacity to deliver services to the world’s environmental ministers, with a resultant influence on national economic policy and international trade.