Rio+20 has come and gone. It ended in the traditional fashion for UN environmental summits with the nations of the world agreeing that, at least in principle, it would be preferable to prevent wide-scale degradation of the planet’s natural systems. Furthermore world leaders have agreed that action should be taken, at some unspecified point in the future preferably when someone else is in charge.
Such conclusions might be tolerable if they were not the norm. If they only happened every once in a while and afterwards there existed some amount of follow through. Then the outcome of Rio+20 might not have had to been seen as a failure.
But enough is enough.
Eventually something more than an agreement to agree to do something at some point in the future becomes necessary. Eventually some form of action is required. Unfortunately we have been waiting for that action for 20 years ever since the original Rio earth summit in 1992.
190 governments have spent 20 years bracing themselves to “acknowledge”, “recognise” and express “deep concern” about the world’s environmental crises, but not to do anything about them.
Perhaps more distressing is the fact that UN officials are almost required to make positive statements after these summits as long as the nations of the world have agreed to something, anything.
For example Ban Ki Moon the UN Secretary-General stated that Rio+20 provides a “firm foundation for social, economic and environmental well-being.” and that it “has affirmed fundamental principles, renewed essential commitments and given us new direction”.
I am sorry but that doesn’t describe what happened at Rio+20. Not in the slightest.
Why can’t UN officials and government officials simply be honest and say something along the lines of “We didn’t accomplish much at Rio+20 because the nations participating in the summit could not overcome their differences and work together towards solutions to the most pressing issues facing humanity.This is a potentially catastrophic problem”.
Instead everyone gets an undeserved pat on the back. Surely this is not helpful. In most situations when you fail as badly and repeatedly as those involved in these UN summits have failed, you are not given a pat on the back and congratulated on a job well done. You are, instead, told that you failed and that if you do not turn things around soon you can pack your bags and leave.
This attitude is long overdue at these UN summits.
Given the long string of failures that have become the norm at UN environmental summits the obvious question is why are they failing? Why, when the evidence that we are heading down the wrong path is so overwhelming, can’t we change directions?
The reasons are many, no doubt, but I think one of they key issues preventing progress is the tendency to throw as many tangentially related issues under the sustainability umbrella. Things like reproductive rights and empowerment for women, the elimination of poverty across the third world, increasing social justice are all worthwhile and important goals, but given that the much more defined problems of reducing GHG emissions and stemming the loss of biodiversity are still unsolved it seems counter-productive to insist that everything but the kitchen sink be included under the umbrella of sustainability.
Certainly it is important to ensure that any solutions to the core sustainability issues don’t make other important issues more difficult to solve but given the complexities of just the core sustainability issues I think we need to accept that we might be unable to solve all the problems facing humanity in one fell swoop. Because as long as everyone with a worthwhile cause attaches themselves to the UN process, we will be stuck with the lowest common denominator and frankly that simply isn’t enough.
What the UN process needs is focus, a smaller set clearly defined goals and some agreement on how to achieve them. In addition the UN needs to asses these summits honestly, if they produce a lacklustre result like Rio+20 has then the Secretary General of the UN should stand up and say so, bluntly and honestly.
Because if we want to protect the natural systems on which human civilization depends we desperately need to do better.