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Rio+20 – How (not) to run a planet?

 
David Nussbaum © Greg Armfield / WWF-UKDavid Nussbaum © Greg Armfield / WWF-UK

I went to Rio in the spirit of both determination and hope. While all of us were aware of the difficult international politics, exacerbated by global financial crises and the increasing human demands on natural resources, Rio+20 was a moment of opportunity.

As Jim Leape, director general of WWF, put it: “A conference about life: about future generations; about the forests, oceans, rivers and lakes that we all depend on for our food, water and energy. It was a conference to address the pressing challenge of building a future that can sustain us.”

Of course, it would have been naïve to pin too many hopes on a single conference, but undeniably we expected more from the outcome document. Entitled ‘The Future We Want’, the text is more a case of ‘The Future We’ll Get If We Rely On Politicians’.

Full of weak phrases, and recitations of previous aspirations which they haven’t realised, the text fails to commit governments to actions, targets, time-frames and finance to which we can hold them accountable.

The conference took the approach that this was a negotiation between countries about how development should proceed. But human development is dependent on the natural world – and we can’t negotiate the laws of nature. Frustrating though it may be to world leaders, even they can’t negotiate with physics and chemistry.

Had the politicians started with a sober assessment of the scientific evidence, they could then have agreed what needed to be done to change the trajectory to ‘the future we want’. After confirming that, they could have negotiated until they had agreed how they were going to achieve what the science demands.

What we have is an agreement within the bounds of what they thought politically possible; what we needed was an agreement to address what is scientifically necessary. This is no way to manage our planet!

The global challenges we face – from climate change to water scarcity, the loss of biodiversity, the acidification of the oceans and the decimation of fish stocks – require global responses, we have too much to lose from such decline. Moreover, it is those who face vulnerability and poverty every day that will suffer the most from our squandering of natural systems and resources.

But my experience here is that Rio+20 has shown that ambition exists, action is being taken, change is happening; but rather than in the plenary halls of the conference it is happening in the communities, the cities and the companies who are committed to creating a sustainable world and are willing to act on that commitment now.

In the absence of global political leadership, some countries have thrown their hat into the ring and made individual commitments for action on sustainable development. At a side event on the Heart of Borneo, the President of Indonesia called for ‘a green economy, not a greed economy.’

The UK has, albeit belatedly, made it mandatory for all companies listed on the London Stock Exchange to include greenhouse gas reporting in their annual reports, and ratified the UN Watercourses convention – for which WWF-UK has been campaigning for several years. We will continue to support these actions and hold them accountable to their promises.

As for WWF, our commitment has not waned and our determination is undiminished. So we will maintain our focus on the transformational change that is so urgently needed by people and planet. We’ll do so by continuing to work with partners for a world with a future in which people and nature thrive.

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