Volume 90 Issue 25 | p. 5 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: June 18, 2012

Prospects For Rio+20

By Rudy M. Baum
Department: Editor's Page
Keywords: Rio+20 Earth Summit, sustainability, climate control

No one expects much of anything concrete to come out of the United Nations’ Rio+20 Earth Summit being held this week in Rio de Janeiro. Why should they? As the UN-sponsored climate-change talks in Copenhagen in 2009 made abundantly clear, the U.S. and China—the two largest greenhouse gas emitters—have no interest whatsoever in sacrificing economic growth to preserve Earth’s environment.

There will be a lot of talk in Rio about sustainability, the need to preserve species, and the dangers of climate change, but nothing substantive will come of it. Forty years ago at the UN Conference on the Human Environment, 119 nations met to discuss environmental concerns and established the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment & Development—the original Rio Earth Summit—approved the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Agenda 21, which UNEP’s recently released “Global Environmental Outlook” (GEO-5) describes as “a blueprint for the introduction of sustainable development.”

How did that work out? The Framework Convention on Climate Change led to the Kyoto protocol in 1997, which the U.S. signed but never ratified. The Kyoto protocol committed 37 industrialized countries to specific cuts in their emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Those countries have, in fact, reduced their overall output of greenhouse gases, but as Jeff Tollefson and Natasha Gilbert point out in an article in the June 7 issue of Nature (DOI: 10.1038/486020a), “The climate numbers are downright discouraging. The world pumped 22.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 1990. … By 2010 that amount had increased roughly 45% to 33 billion tonnes. Carbon dioxide emissions skyrocketed by more than 5% in 2010 alone, marking the fastest growth in more than two decades.”

What about Agenda 21? According to a story in the Feb. 3 New York Times, some right-wing crazies in the U.S. “are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.” I never thought that one could demonize the concept of sustainability. Naturally, I was wrong.

As bad as things are, and the June 7 special issue of Nature focused on Rio+20 issues and GEO-5 makes it clear that they’re pretty bad, I detect a glimmer of hope in a couple of things I’ve read in the past few weeks. One is another article in the June 7 Nature by Pavan Sukhdev, CEO of the environmental consulting firm GIST Advisory, entitled “Sustainability: The Corporate Climate Overhaul” (DOI: 10.1038/486027a). Sukhdev argues, “for effective climate-change or biodiversity solutions, members of the corporate world need to be brought to the table as ethical stewards of shared planetary resources, and not, as they have been so far, as self-interested exploiters of common wealth.” Sukhdev suggests that incentives can be put in place to create a new type of corporation, one that is still profitable but one that also “increases human well-being and social equity, and decreases environmental risks and ecological scarcities.”

And the June 11 Wall Street Journal reviewed a book by Roger Scruton, “How To Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism.” I haven’t read the book yet, but the largely positive review says that Scruton makes an argument against economic growth, noting: “A consumer economy, Mr. Scruton argues … eventually consumes itself as it depletes resources for which there are no substitutes.” I never conceived the possibility of reading anything in the Journal that suggested that economic growth might not be an unmitigated blessing.

The glimmer of hope I perceive is that when people begin to argue that we need a new paradigm for business success and a conservative intellectual suggests that we need to transition from a growth economy, we just might be making progress. I hope it’s not too late.

Thanks for reading.


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