Milestone birthdays are opportunities to take stock of our family, health and financial situation. So how is Planet Earth doing 20 years after the Earth Summit, the historic UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro? The planet’s economic output has more than doubled since 1992. Some members of the global family are doing extremely well, but the number of hungry people is increasing. And the planet’s health is steadily deteriorating, with vital ecosystems nearing the point of collapse.
We can celebrate milestone birthdays with empty rhetoric, or we can use them to change course. Twenty years ago, governments adopted resolutions that aimed to bring the global community into social, environmental and economic balance. They resolved to follow basic rules of global housekeeping such as the precautionary principle, the internalization of environmental costs, and the polluter-pays principle. They prepared a specific roadmap of global change in the Agenda 21. And most of them made binding commitments by signing the conventions on biodiversity and climate change.
Looking back, we have failed to live up to our resolutions and commitments as a global community. We can’t relive the past, but as we prepare for the Rio+20 summit in June, we have another chance to take stock and change course. Unfortunately world leaders have so far not risen to the challenge. The draft document for the Rio+20 summit, which governments are currently discussing in New York, is devoid of substance and ambition. Entitled, The Future We Want, it contains no honest analysis, few specific recommendations, and no binding commitments. Instead, it tries to hide its lack of ambition with vague concepts such as a new Green Economy.
In the water sector – the area I know best – there are indeed measures that could improve the planet’s economic and ecological health at the same time. We could start by dramatically improving the water efficiency of our existing infrastructure and agriculture. We could safeguard vital ecosystems and the services that they provide by protecting free-flowing rivers and restoring environmental flows. We could phase out public funding for unsustainable agricultural practices, polluting industries and destructive dams. And we could redirect development aid towards the decentralized, small-scale technologies that strengthen the food, water and energy security of the poorest without destroying the environment.
Unfortunately, the language of the Rio+20 draft document is so vague that it can easily be abused by the money lenders, consultants and contractors that benefit from the current course of action. Under the motto of the Green Economy, the World Bank proposes to build more large multipurpose dams that would clog the arteries of the planet while bypassing the poor. As the World Commission on Dams found ten years ago, these complex projects have the worst track record among all dams in terms of economic viability, poverty reduction and environmental protection – the main pillars of sustainable development.
Milestone birthdays rarely come at a convenient time. When economic strife and political drama dominate large parts of the world, it requires a lot of courage to take a long-term view. Yet we are living beyond our means and drawing down the natural capital on which the poorest people and future generations depend for their livelihoods. As a recent UN report (pdf) found, “natural systems that support economies, lives and livelihoods across the planet are at risk of rapid degradation and collapse.” Once these ecosystems have reached their tipping point, no other planet will bail us out. Will we find the courage for an honest assessment and change of course at the Rio+20 summit?