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10 July, 2012

Don de Silva, former senior official of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) gave a Greencoat Forum on 3 July on perspectives for future action after Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.

One of the best protests of Rio+20: a tank made of bread was taken around the city, organised by the World Future Council (Photo: World Future Council)
One of the best protests of Rio+20: a tank made of bread was taken around the city, organised by the World Future Council (Photo: World Future Council)
Don de Silva, who is currently the Head of Programme Administration at Initiatives of Change UK, pointed out that Rio+20, which took place from 13 to 22 June 2012, was the biggest UN conference ever held, with participation from governments, businesses and civil society, as well as UN officials, academics, journalists and the general public.

The 1992 Earth Summit at Rio had endorsed a radical agenda for action and an Earth Charter, but 90 per cent of the decisions and commitments were never kept by world governments. In stark contrast, meeting under a debilitating world economic and financial crisis, Rio+20 adopted a less ambitious, more sober set of commitments.

The final document, which came out of the Rio+20 Conference, entitled 'The Future We Want', was described by some civic societies as 'a failure of epic proportions'.

Trying to solve the world's most critical environmental problems by convening the very governments stuck in gridlock the last 20 years was never going to be a silver-bullet solution.

But contrary to what mainstream media reported, there were positive developments.

Preparations for Rio+20 took place over two years and meetings included both governments and NGOs representatives.

What were the principal outcomes of the event?

  • Businesses, trade unionists, governments and representatives of the civil society reported about how they were working together to tackle environmental issues. A transition to a green economy could transform the livelihoods of many of the 1.3 billion people earning just a US$1.25 a day around the world.
  • Big businesses were more visible than the heads of state and government. Hundreds of business initiatives were announced through groups including Business Action for Sustainable Development and the UN Global Compact's Corporate Sustainability Forum.
  • Eight multilateral development banks committed to provide £112bn over 10 years towards sustainable transport in developing countries, a sector responsible for about one-quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions.
  • A new set of Sustainable Development Goals will replace the existing Millennium Development Goals in 2015 to drive action on environmental issues.
  • The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will have universal membership and be guaranteed a stable, regular budget.
  • The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) presented the conceptual groundwork for a “Sustainable Human Development Index,' recognizing the cost of human development to future generations. The current measurement of economic growth – Gross Domestic Product – doesn’t take into account the real cost of economic activity on the environment.

High-level talks at the Rio+20 conference (Photo: UN Photo/Rossana Fraga)
High-level talks at the Rio+20 conference (Photo: UN Photo/Rossana Fraga)

Beyond the negotiated document, over 700 voluntary commitments by civil society groups, businesses, governments, universities and others were made, with an estimated $513 billion mobilized from the 13 largest commitments alone.

A new leadership

The conference saw the combination of political muscle and imaginative thinking in the so-called 'emerging economies' of countries such as Brazil, China, India, Republic of Korea and South Africa.

The larger story in Rio+20 was the emergence of thousands of individuals and organizations, including corporations, who believe they can make a measurable difference.

The need for a radical restructuring of the economic system

With almost all the population growth occurring in the emerging economies, by 2030, some 2 billion people will have joined the global middle classes. In less than 20 years, we will witness the creation of a middle class of roughly the same size as the current total population of Africa, North America and Europe, who will want mobile phones, fridges, cars and washing machines.

The implications for the world's commodity resources are stark: global demand for food and water is expected to increase by 50% and 30% respectively by 2030. The pressure on copper, lead, zinc and corn is already becoming unsustainable.

Violent conflicts worldwide have been triggered by competition for resources. Looking at the current trends, the world is moving into a war for resources.

The change of course called for at Rio+20 requires radical restructuring - indeed, a revolution - of our current economic system. According to the UK Interdependent Report, produced by the New Economic Foundation, if everyone in the world lived as we do in the UK, we would need three planets to support us.

The role of faith based organisations

Don de Silva participates at a Rio+20 forum (Photo: Changeways)
Don de Silva participates at a Rio+20 forum (Photo: Changeways)
One of the biggest disappointments at Rio+20 was the abysmal performance of faith and spiritually-based groups who confined themselves to fringe events, not making any attempt at rising above differences to work together for positive change.

Spiritual groups have a major role to play in dealing with the moral and spiritual dimension of sustainability: addressing institutional injustice and disregard, enabling people to think beyond their narrow confines, uniting people in common action to make a positive difference in society.

Throughout the world, today, there are seeds of hope. Among them are those that are sown by community groups and organisations, inspired by values.

The challenge for all of us is to ensure that such initiatives are sustainable and facilitate similar positive action throughout the world. The Arab Spring, the anti-corruption drive in India, the demonstrations outside Rio+20, and the Occupy movement are taking daring action to change the world.

As Don de Silva put it: ‘Change will come. The world spiritual movements have a stark choice: whether this change will be through peaceful or non-peaceful means.’

The IofC-UK Communications Team

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