For the past two weeks, representatives from around the world met for Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, to define a global plan of action that would push humanity toward a cleaner, greener future.
The text they agreed upon on Friday is a caricature of diplomacy. It “acknowledges” many challenges and “encourages” action, but there are few real commitments.
We are living way beyond our means. We are using 50 percent more resources than the Earth can provide. Yet there are many who do not have enough to meet their basic needs — nearly a billion people are malnourished and 1.4 billion live without electricity to light their homes.
The mission of the Rio conference was to set us on a different path. It was meant to be a conference about life, about creating a shared global ambition to build a prosperous future that the Earth could sustain.
We needed to see a commitment to ensure that everyone had access to modern energy, and that it was produced from renewable sources that were clean and abundant. We needed a commitment that governments would stop absurd subsidies that took us in the wrong direction — including the $750 billion that governments pay each year to promote the use of fossil fuels.
We needed commitments that the indicators we used to measure progress, such as “gross domestic product,” take account of the health of our natural capital — the forests, rivers and oceans on which we depend — as well as our cash. We needed stronger protection for the high seas — the commons of the oceans — that were being plundered in a free-for-all reminiscent of the Wild West.
But these things did not happen. The text finally agreed upon in Rio was a passing description of “the future we want.” Unfortunately, it does not set us on the path to getting there.
Yet there is hope. If you looked around Rio last week, you saw where the action really was — local and national governments, companies and NGOs finding ways to get on with it.
Governments are coming together in regional initiatives to manage the resources they share.
In the Coral Triangle, stretching from Malaysia and Indonesia to the Solomon Islands, governments have joined forces to protect the world’s richest coral reefs, which provide food and livelihoods for more than 100 million of their citizens.
In the green heart of Africa, the Congo basin, countries are working together to control an illegal timber trade and conserve the world’s second-largest rainforest.
Some countries are acting on their own. In Rio, President Armando Guebuza of Mozambique announced a new Green Economy Roadmap for his country. President Felipe Calderon of Mexico won passage of the world’s first comprehensive climate change law, which will drastically cut emissions and build the renewable energy sector. Chancellor Angela Merkel has embarked on a transformation of Germany’s energy system, phasing out nuclear power and moving strongly toward renewable sources.
States and cities, too, are moving ahead. Here in Brazil, the Amazon state of Acre is creating a truly “green” economy, built on the value of standing forest. In the “Mexico City Pact,” more than 250 cities have committed to measure, reduce and report their carbon emissions.
Governments, civil society and companies are joining together to forge new and change-making collaborations. Through the Consumer Goods Forum, for example, 20 of the world’s largest companies — including Unilever, Coca-Cola and Walmart — have committed to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, buying only beef, soy, palm oil, timber and paper that are produced without destroying forests.
Through the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, the world’s largest tuna canners (accounting for 60 percent of the market) are working with the WWF and the United Nations to end pirate fishing and ensure that tuna stocks will feed us for many generations to come. The International Trade Union Confederation is mobilizing its members, who hold $25 trillion in pension funds, to invest in creating green jobs.
There are many examples, and the potential is huge. It is clear that this is where hope lies. We will not get the future we want, or the future we need, if we only wait for 193 governments to agree on the path ahead. Success will not come from lowest-common-denominator solutions.
Ultimately, we will need to find ways for world governments to act together, especially on global challenges like climate change. But in the meantime, leadership can and must come from many other quarters — indeed, from every other quarter. That is beginning to happen.
The International Herald Tribune
Jim Leape is director general of WWF International.