All about Rio - a quick guide
Rio+20 (the UN conference on Sustainable Development) is the largest UN conference ever, bringing together about 50,000 people from 194 nations. The conference follows the success of the 1992 Earth Summit which set up specific UN bodies to combat climate change and desertification, and promote biodiversity.
The conference aims to make political agreements to improve standards of living for the poor, while protecting the environment. “Side events” are being held to discuss the themes of access to food, water and energy for all.
Who will be there?
194 countries, most of them represented by their leaders; over 130 Heads of State and will attend, including leaders from China, Russia, Brazil, India and South Africa – the most powerful developing countries. President Barack Obama has sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to represent the USA, and David Cameron has sent Nick Clegg. Of the approx 50,000 people expected to attend, about 20,000 will be members of civil society – NGOs, the media, etc.
What will they talk about?
The ‘Zero Draft’ document (80+pages) says they aim to, “reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet”.
This should become the Outcome Document that everyone signs up to. It will focus on shifting to a ‘green economy’, powered by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, and setting up global governance structures to protect the environment.
This political agreement, under the working name The Future We Want, will commit all the UN countries to this new model of sustainable development – although it is not legally binding.
There is also a “Registry of Commitments”, that will allow a series less formal agreements to be made between nations on issues around sustainable development, such as setting up new marine reserves, an international court for the environment, an agreement to end water wars, more sustainable cities, boosting recycling etc.
So what will happen?
It is likely that there will be an agreement to draw up new Sustainable Development Goals. The idea was put forward by Colombia and Guatemala and is strongly backed by the UK.
Like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), that helped the world work towards goals like universal education, the SDGs will set a series of targets. It is most likely they will be around access to sustainable food, water and energy for all. Over the next three years, the specifics will be identified so that the SDGs can be put into action alongside the MDGs, that are due to be renewed in 2015.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) organisation may be strengthened so that it is as powerful as the World Health Organisation and other bodies and can “police” the global environment. Practical Action has links with UNEP, e.g. this year we organised the launches of their “Sustainable Energy for All” (SEFA) initiative.
Another possible outcome is the adoption of new way of measuring countries’ success: currently GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is the key measure. “GDP+” takes into account “natural capital” like water, clean air and green spaces – e.g. a country would “lose points” for losing indigenous species or natural habitats. The UK leads this idea. A Natural Capital Committee has been set up to advise the Chancellor on how to protect green resources.
What effect will the proposals have?
Taxpayers ultimately pay for many of the measures, such as helping poor countries develop sustainable water supplies, through aid. If there is commitment to SDGs, they could force us to make potentially unpopular changes – how we farm, what we grow, how we travel.
What’s happened since the last Earth Summit?
Nearly 3 million square kilometres of Arctic sea ice (at summer minimum) have been lost. 30 million hectares of Brazilian rainforest are gone. According to the WWF’s most recent Living Planet Report, global demand for natural resources has doubled since 1996 and that is now 50 per cent higher than the regenerative capacity of the planet. Carbon emissions have increased by 40 per cent in the past 20 years, biodiversity loss is accelerating and one in six people remain undernourished.
N.B. Climate change is part of a separate UN process: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC conference meets later this year.
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