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Rio+20, and how it might develop


This June, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is playing host to the world again when the UN rolls into town. Every country will be there for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development – informally known as Rio+20. If you don’t know what it’s about, let me bring you up to speed…

Man watering plants in nursery, Kenya © Brent Stirton / Getty ImagesWorker watering plants in Golini Community Nursery, Kwale District, near Mombasa. © Brent Stirton / Getty Images

‘Sustainable development’ is a phrase you’ll be hearing a lot in coming weeks, and it’s a vast and complex subject. But from our perspective it essentially means achieving a world where everyone shares the same rights to a healthy, living planet. (WWF’s goal has always been a world where people and nature thrive.)

The first Rio ‘Earth Summit’ took place back in 1992, and was pretty groundbreaking. A high level of political will at the time, generated by a huge mobilisation of people around the world, meant there was a pretty strong incentive for politicians, heads of state and decision-makers to take some brave and ambitious steps.

Among other things, they signed off the Rio Declaration (a set of 27 principles on environment and development) and Agenda 21 (a weighty tome that set the direction for sustainable development in the 21st century at local, national and international levels). And they established three new bodies to tackle the most pressing challenges of our time: the UNFCCC on climate change, UNCBD on biodiversity loss, and UNCCD to combat desertification.

So, 20 years on from that first Rio summit, where are we now?

This time around, at Rio+20, the conference has a couple of different objectives. The first is to reaffirm political commitment to sustainable development. This might not sound like much – governments saying, ”Yes, this is still important to us” – but words have a lot of power. And without this clear message being sent out we’ll never see the kind of action needed.

Children collecting water from a stand-pipe in Mousini Island, India © WWF-Canon / Simon RawlesChildren collecting water from a stand-pipe in Mousini Island, India © WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles

Secondly, Rio+20 will look back at progress over the last two decades. This is going to be a tough one. The good news is that a lot of the trends for development are moving in the right direction – poverty is decreasing, more people are receiving healthcare and education, more people have access to water and sanitation. We just need to accelerate the pace.

But with the environment, the story is very different. Most environmental trends are heading in the wrong direction, and at an alarming rate. Just have a look at WWF’s most recent Living Planet Report to find out more.

Unfortunately, fewer governments are going to be willing to address this – and here’s why. A lot of the environmental damage caused across the world in the last two decades is due to the increased consumption from the developed world. In other words, by the lifestyles of many of us in richer countries like the UK and US.

A mother and her child collecting spring water from a local spring in Lamahai, Nepal © Simon de Trey-White / WWF-UKThrough WWF funding and help from the local community, many springs have been found in the area and are now set up to provide water to the local populace in Lamahai, Nepal © Simon de Trey-White / WWF-UK

The way we live has huge impacts on what happens in other parts of the planet. But it’s politically difficult for governments to talk about reining in how (and how much) we consume, because of the way our economies measure progress – basing it on a model of ‘growth’ that depends on ever-increasing wealth and material consumption.

That’s not to say middle and low-income countries haven’t also seen their consumption patterns increase – but for many people that’s only gone some way towards meeting desperate needs for food, water and energy. There’s still a huge disparity between the developing and developed world in terms of consumption and use of natural resources.

The Rio+20 conference is also going to be looking at some of the serious challenges that face most countries in the 21st century. Energy poverty, for example, is on the world agenda in a big way for the first time in as long as anyone can remember. And as the global population becomes more urban than rural for the first time in history, cities and their contribution to sustainable living will also be key subjects.

There’s a lot to do at Rio+20, but it’s a rare opportunity to tackle some of the biggest issues of our time.

I’ll be blogging more about Rio+20 and various related topics over coming weeks.

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