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Changing course


Maurice Strong

Secretary-General of the 1972 Stockholm and 1992 Earth Summit conferences.

There have been immense changes in the world since the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 put the environment on the international agenda — and since governments agreed to Agenda 21, the blueprint for creating a sustainable way of life, at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

&Notable progress has been made in awareness and understanding the issues we must address, in our capacity to do so — and in recognising the urgency of the need for decisive action and the dire consequences of failure to act. Deeper commitment to sustainable development has been accompanied by an increasing number of positive examples in applying it. Yet most of the problems now facing the world have been on the table for decades, some ever since Stockholm.

These have now reached crisis proportions — not as a result of lack of proclaimed commitments by governments to action, but because of their dismal performance in carrying them out.

If they had implemented the many conventions, treaties and declarations they have negotiated — from Stockholm to Rio to Kyoto to Johannesburg — we would be well along the road to sustainability. Instead, their failure has left us on a course that threatens the very future of humankind. The past 30 years have been characterised by irresponsible capitalism, pursuing limitless economic growth at the expense of both society and the environment, channelling more and more money into fewer hands, with little or no regard for the natural resource base upon which such wealth is built.

Rio+20 presents a new opportunity to make the “change of course” urged by business leaders at the Earth Summit two decades ago. This would require fundamental changes in how we manage the activities which impact on the Earth’s sustainability, and a degree of cooperation beyond anything we have yet experienced. The transcendental importance of the actions that need to be taken requires that they be firmly rooted in our deepest moral and ethical principles.

Yet the meeting takes place at a time when political priorities are focussed on the immediate issues of economic and financial crises, and accompanying political turbulence, in much of the world. Competition and conflict over scarce resources are escalating and resistance to change in patterns of production and consumption has deepened. The result is a significant decline in the priority accorded to longer term issues, notably the environment and climate change. This recession in political will threatens far more damaging consequences than the more immediate issues that have given rise to it.

It has never been more important to heed the evidence of science that time is running out in our ability to manage successfully our impacts on the Earth’s environment, biodiversity, resource and life-support systems on which we depend. The ecological problems at the root of both our environmental and financial crises have the same source — the fundamental deficiencies in our economic system. We must rise above the lesser concerns that pre-empt our attention and respond to the reality that the future of human life depends on what we do, or fail to do, in this generation.

All this underscores the urgent need for decisive action at Rio+20. The necessary change of course will require radical changes in our current economic system, particularly by those countries, mostly Western, which have dominated the world economy during the past century. They will be most resistant to change, yet they have monopolised the economic benefits that have accompanied our cumulative damage to the Earth’s life-support systems, its precious biological resources and its climate.

The Green Economy is not just a slogan, and Rio+20 must produce strong new impetus to its national, local and global achievement. An economy that integrates sustainable development principles with responsible capitalism can produce enough wealth to meet everyone’s needs. The Earth Summit 2012 must clearly draw a roadmap — for the urgent transition to renewable energy — to set the world on a path to an economy, sustainable, equitable and accessible to all.

The key is an immense increase in economic efficiency — in the production of goods and services, in the use of energy, and in the development, use and reuse of resources. Some nations — notably Japan, Germany and some other European countries — have demonstrated that this is not only feasible, but produces significant economic, as well as environmental, benefits. The more developed countries, which have contributed most to global environmental problems, have a responsibility and an interest to fulfil the commitments they have made to provide developing ones with access to the finance and technologies they require to green their economies.

Civil society organizations in each country should assess the performance of their governments in implementing both past commitments and those they undertake in Rio. A new instrument in the form of ‘Earth Bonds’ should be established for purchase by private sector foundations, funds and individuals for investment in sustainable development projects, principally in developing countries. And a system should be established — based on principles 21 and 22 agreed in Stockholm in 1972 — to give victims of environmental damage in one country access to the courts of the responsible country so that they can seek compensation.

There is a real need to clarify and strengthen the role of UNEP by agreeing to accord it the status of a specialised agency, without treating the environment, which is a systemic issue, as a sector. This could lead to the establishment of a World Environment Organization. The UN’s outdated Trusteeship Council should be given a new role covering the global commons and the environment, and Rio+20 should endorse — and be grounded in — the Earth Charter.

Some will deem such measures unrealistic under today’s conditions. But denial cannot change the reality, only increase its dangers. The need for such actions is real and urgent. Rio+20 cannot do it all, but it can — and must — set these processes in motion and give them the support and impetus they require.

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