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Only One Earth

Felix Dodds
Executive Director of Stakeholder Forum and Chair of the 64th UN DPI NGO Conference

Ours – future generations will surely decide – is the irresponsible generation. They will look upon 1992 to 2012 as a lost twenty years, during which we could have laid the foundations for a more sustainable world. Instead we have increased unsustainable consumption patterns in developed countries and exported them to developing ones, with increasingly negative and destructive impacts on the world’s environment and on poor people. We knew the problems, we knew most of the answers — but we failed to scale them up to deliver what was needed.

Rio+20 must ensure we take a different economic path. And while the term ‘Green Economy’ has become controversial in some circles, it at last puts economic affairs on the table. I believe we should see it as a just transition to one that puts sustainability and people, equity and fairness at its core.

There are clear parallels between the ecological and financial crises. Banks and financial institutions privatized gains and socialized losses. We are doing the same with the planet’s natural capital. Our present lifestyles are drawing it down at irreplaceable rates from other parts of the world and from future generations. So what could Rio do?

Establishing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been tabled by the governments of Colombia and Guatemala. Integrating them with the Millennium Development Goals into a single post-2015 framework would be a vital outcome from Rio. Meanwhile a meeting hosted by the government of Monaco has suggested that one SDG should focus on oceans, addressing “all the sectors that rely on ocean resources and space but urgently need to be integrated and made sustainable to continue the provision of their economic, social and environmental services; and to raise the living standards of deprived communities”. Other areas might include energy, biodiversity, food security and nutrition, water, urbanization, sustainable consumption and production. The goals should have universal application and build on Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation.

The lack of funding for implementing these two agreed programmes is already facing us with huge challenges. If Rio+20 is to succeed, Rio money must be put on the table to fund a move towards an economy based on sustainable development.

Support for introducing a financial transaction tax has grown in Europe, and the Eurozone might go ahead with one. It could help governments refinance themselves, while taking money from those who caused the present problems, and should surely be used to support the needed transition.

Last September, Maurice Strong suggested developing an Earth Bond. “We should now” he said, “tap private sources, giving them opportunities to invest in the Green Economy by purchasing Earth Bonds, the proceeds of which would be invested in sustainable development projects in developing countries.”

Simon Zadek suggests amending the sovereign wealth funds’ Santiago Principles to include sustainable development criteria. Such funds — amounting to $4.7 trillion — could have a huge impact if targeted towards sustainable development.

Encouraging the Credit Rating Agencies to include sustainable development criteria in their rating systems could also have a big effect on changing corporate and government activities.

And at last year’s UN General Assembly, the UK insurance firm Aviva, along with fifty other companies, proposed that Rio should support establishing a Convention on Corporate Sustainability, under which corporations would either have to report sustainability impacts or explain why they chose not to. Such a convention — which has already attracted support from governments and stakeholders — should go further and deal with responsibility, principles of transparency and accountability.

The summit’s other main task will be to address the institutional framework for sustainable development. UNEP has had an amazing forty years helping to create our environmental legislative framework, while acting as the global advocate for environment. It has managed this with an inadequate budget and a lack of political will from governments, but with a deeply committed staff. It must now be strengthened to address the issues of today’s world, including upgrading it into a World Environment Organization which brings together all the environmental conventions into a coherent structure.

After nearly twenty years it is clear that the UN Commission on Sustainable Development does not work. It has failed to deliver on its work programme since the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. One bold and important suggestion is that there should be a Council of the UN General Assembly on Sustainable Development dealing with new and emerging issues.

The risk of a fragmented science base could be overcome by having an Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Development overseeing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and any future science panels. It could also address integrated modeling and scenario settings to ensure coherent information for decision makers and report to the new Sustainable Development Council

Delivering sustainable development takes place locally. There should therefore be strengthening, re-establishment and creation of councils on sustainable development at all levels of government, producing a partnership that would provide an engine for implementation, monitoring and new ideas.

One of the successes of 1992 was developing a regional convention in Europe on Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration – access to information, public participation and environmental justice. Rio+20 could be the launching pad for securing renewed and more specific commitments by governments to the Principle through, for example, establishing regional conventions to provide enforceable access to information.

A fundamental revolution is needed, not in 40 years’ time, nor in only one country, but in the next ten years and across the globe. As Senator Robert Kennedy put it in 1968: “A revolution is coming — a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough. But a revolution is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability”. Let’s work for a world built on sustainable societies, responsive citizens and accountable governments.

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