Why I’m Already Looking Forward to Rio+40

This blog piece first appeard on the Young Friends of the Earth Europe website.

In 1992, when the nations of the world came together at the Rio Earth Summit, the closest thing to pollution I was thinking about was my dirty nappy. Now, as Rio+20 gets underway, I am a graduate about to head out into the world as a community worker. During my journey from cot to climate activism a lot has changed in the world. Yet the principles of the 1992 Rio Declaration stand as a radical and inspirational avowal from 172 nations-representing 98% of the world’s population- that they no longer wanted to build a world on unsustainability, injustice and inequity.

Those visionary leaders acknowledged for the first time that social and environmental justice are inextricably linked (Principle 5). They asserted the rights of affected communities, indigenous peoples and subaltern populations to be included- and listened to-in the dialogue (Principle 10, 20, 21, 22). They enshrined the idea of intergenerational equity at the core of sustainable development (Principle 3).

However their most important affirmations were, without a doubt, Principle 7 on ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ and Principle 9 on scientific exchange and technology transfer. Both of these principles, which are so crucial to creating the better world we called for in 1992, are now under serious threat.

Principle 7 emphasises that ‘states shall co-operate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem. In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.’

It acknowledges that the countries of the Global North are primarily responsible for the multiple crises affecting climate and biodiversity, accepting that they have a moral and historical obligation to do the most to prevent the crises and alleviate their effects. By incorporating the triple bottom line of sustainable development (social, environmental and economic), principle 7 highlights the fact that we cannot have sustainable development unless the Global North accepts its role in perpetuating unsustainability. Without North-South equity the systems of exploitation that have led to poverty and environmental degradation will never cease to sustain unsustainability.

In preliminary negotiations before the conference opens officially, many Northern actors, with the US leading the charge, are now actively trying to undermine common but differentiated responsibility- destroying any notion of North-South  equity- according to a draft of The Future We Want (the conference outcomes document) leaked to the Guardian in the UK.

The leaked draft is a telling snapshot of how the EU is taking sides with the US and other leading polluters in backroom negotiations to act against the interests of the Group of 77, the negotiating block which includes the Least Developed Countries and members of the Alliance of Small Island States.

Meanwhile, Principle 9 underlines that ‘states should co-operate to strengthen endogenous capacity-building for sustainable development by improving scientific understanding through exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge, and by enhancing the development, adaptation, diffusion and transfer of technologies, including new and innovative technologies’

This principle acknowledges the reality that key information and technology which is essential for the mitigation of and adaption to climate change is held in the Global North. It is as close as Northern governments are ever likely to go in acknowledging they have cut the Global South out of scientific and political discourses on climate change and development.

Once again, the leaked draft of The Future We Want shows how the US, backed by the EU and others is seeking to delete or dilute all references to technology transferral. Where Northern actors have not demanded outright deletion of the phrase ‘technology transfer’, the US has insisted it be replaced with the words ‘voluntary transfer on mutually agreed terms and conditions’, as in paragraph 18 of the draft text which again seeks to underscore the role of North-South equity in the achievement of the triple bottom line of sustainability.

The abandonment of common but differentiated responsibility and the denial of the North’s moral obligation for technology transfer are extremely worrying on the eve of negotiations that will set out, supposedly, The Future We Want. Now more than ever people all over the world need to stand up and remind our leaders that a future without sustainability, justice and equity is absolutely not the future we want. Our leaders knew that in 1992, we cannot let them forget it.

At the original Earth Summit, Canada, perhaps stirred by the moving speech of 12 year old Canadian citizen Severn Suzuki stated their hope that the Rio Declaration would be something that all children could understand and hang by their beds. The Pakistani delegation reminded Canada that for many children living in poverty there was no bed to hang a piece of paper over. The sad reality is that for many young people who have grown up in the two decades since the Earth Summit the rhetoric of Rio remains hallow.

There is so much still to be done to achieve the world envisioned by the declaration. However it stands as a shining example of what our leaders can resolve to do when they are not guided by narrow self-interest but rather imagine a world build for people rather than profit.

I am graduating now in a world that recognises the North’s responsibility to the South, the importance of the voices of the marginalised and the needs of future generations. In twenty years time, will these fundamental principles still be acknowledged? By Rio+40, I may even have my own polluting toddlers. I wonder what sort of future they will want, and I hazard a guess that it is not one where the Northern leaders of today have abandoned the citizens of the world for a future favoured by an elite few.

That, surely, would be more disgusting than a dirty nappy could ever be.


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