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The Environmental and Economic Crises Share the Same Cause
12/ 06/ 2012

The Environmental and Economic Crises Share the Same CauseParadoxically, if we fail to act decisively to combat climate change, the reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions could occur through the collapse of the world economy, warns Maurice Strong in this column.

BEIJING, Jun 4 (Tierramérica).- What has happened with the global environment movement? This is a crucial question for Rio+20, the upcoming United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which will be held Jun. 20-22 in Brazil.

The UNCED of 1972, popularly named "Stockholm" after its host city, was the first-ever global conference on the environment, putting it permanently on the international agenda. Preparations for the conference were fraught with difficulties, particularly developing countries' concern that the environment was, for the rich, an issue that could divert attention and resources from their commitments to development and the elimination of poverty, the central concerns of the developing world.

Some even considered boycotting the conference and insisted that the developed world provide developing countries with new and additional financial resources and access to the best technologies if the latter were expected to participate in environmental cooperation.

Stockholm was also the first UN conference in which China participated after it took its rightful place in the United Nations. The Soviet Union and other communist countries boycotted it on the grounds that what was then East Germany was denied participation.

Climate change was one of the issues cited as requiring attention and later was given high priority by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), established in December 1972 and headquartered in Nairobi. The Statement of Principles and Action Plan approved at the conference exceeded expectations. UNCED also gave rise to the establishment of environmental ministries or directorates in most countries.

From its inception, many attempts were made to limit the impact of UNEP. The Brussels Group, which included Britain, the United States, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, was set up as "an unofficial policy-making body to concert the views of the principal governments concerned", according to the notes from the group's first meetings, written by a civil servant in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

These countries overtly supported the creation of UNEP, but worked behind the scenes to ensure that it would not become a major organization, limiting its financial support so that the staff would remain small.

Despite this, UNEP was able to recruit exceptionally experienced and competent staff through an Environment Coordination Board that benefitted from the participation of the heads of UN agencies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which made it necessary for other agency heads to participate. This helped to make UNEP's coordinating role during that period quite effective.

Unfortunately, the board was later replaced by a lower-level committee. Rio+20 must support increasing the status of UNEP to that of a specialized agency. This could lead to the establishment of a World Environment Organization, as some have proposed.

I feel strongly that Rio+20 must endorse and be grounded by the Earth Charter. The change called for at the first Earth Summit in 1992 requires radical restructuring - indeed, a revolution - of our current economic system. This must be led by those countries, mostly Western, that dominated the world economy during the period in which the most damage to the Earth's life-support systems, its precious biological resources, and its climate occurred, while they monopolized the resulting economic benefits. Rio+20 must also reinforce the focus on biodiversity to which this Decade on Biodiversity is devoted and so spur the implementation of measures to protect the resources so essential to global sustainability.

Experience has demonstrated that the countries that have been most successful in improving their environment are those, like Japan, which have been most efficient in managing their economies and reducing the energy, resources and materials used to produce their GDP. Rio+20 must provide special measures to assist developing countries in bolstering the efficiency of their economies.

No issue is more important to the future of humanity than climate change, yet the political will to act cooperatively and decisively in this area has diminished dangerously. Rio+20 must reinforce international efforts to reach agreement and renewal of the Climate Change Convention and its implementation.

Paradoxically, if we fail to act, the reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions could occur through the collapse of the world economy - an option none of us would prefer. After all, the environmental and climate change crises share the same cause as the economic and financial crises: the inadequacy of our current economic system.

Only an enlightened view of their own self-interest in the security and sustainability of life is likely to induce the more developed countries to accept the principal responsibility they bear for the fundamental change of course that we must make. Developing countries must play their part, but their responsibilities are of a different order of magnitude.

The concept of shared but differentiated responsibilities must be strongly reinforced at Rio+20.

The growing inequities in the distribution of the benefits of economic growth continue to widen the rich-poor divide in virtually all countries, even in China, which has lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation. This undermines the prospect of enabling the poor and disadvantaged to share fully and equitably in the benefits of sustainable development, which would lead to social unrest, evidence of which is already emerging.

* Maurice Strong is senior adviser to the secretary-general of Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. He was the secretary-general of the 1992 Earth Summit and the first executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (www.mauricestrong.net). (Copyright IPS)

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