Persistent problems in discussion Rio+20

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SINCE the world’s first big environment conference in 1972, green issues have become woven into the political agenda and into consumer consciousness. But as this snapshot shows, few problems have been resolved and some are worsening fast.

> Ozone protection: The 1987 UN Montreal Protocol outlawed chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases that erode Earth’s ozone layer, which protects the planet from cancer-causing solar rays. Further expansion of the Antarctic ozone hole has been halted, but full recovery is not expected until mid-century or later.

> Climate change: At the 1992 Rio Summit, the UN set up the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which later in 1997, gave birth to the Kyoto Protocol, the only treaty to require specific cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. But Kyoto has been outstripped by emissions by emerging giant economies which do not have such targets. UNFCCC parties have agreed to forge a new pact by 2015, taking effect from 2020. Time is short.

Earth is on track for warming of 3°Celsius or more by century’s end, gravely worsening perils from drought, floods, storms and rising seas.

> Biodiversity: The Convention on Biological Diversity, another 1992 offshoot, has failed to make headway against species loss. The world badly missed a Millennium Development Goal target of a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Since 1980, the condition of coral reefs has declined by 38%. Loss of habitat, especially to agriculture, has in some places been more than 20% since the 1980s.

> Oceans: Except for a few fisheries that are under good national control, fish stocks are suffering unprecedented depletion. In 2007, just 7% of the output of global fisheries were certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, showing the products came from eco-friendlier sources. The oceans have 169 coastal “dead zones” and 415 coastal areas that suffer from eutrophication, meaning low levels of oxygen or excess nitrogen from fertiliser runoff.

> Freshwater: Over the past 50 years, global withdrawals of groundwater have tripled in response to a surge in urban populations and demand from agriculture.

Only 158 out of 263 river basins that cross national boundaries have agreements on cooperative management of the resource. Some 92% of the world’s water footprint comes from farming.

> Energy: A massive increase in interest in renewables, helped by targets set in Europe especially, contrasts with the domination of fossil fuels, which accounted for 80.9% of energy supplies in 2009. Since 1992, solar energy has increased by nearly 30,000%, and wind by 6,000%, in output.

But together with geothermal, they accounted for only 0.8% of the global total in 2009. Biofuels and waste-burning contributed 10.2%. Global investment in renewable power and fuels set a new record in 2010 of US$211bil (RM633bil), 540% more than 2004.

> Deforestation: Since 1992, the world’s primary forests have decreased by 300 million hectares, an area almost as big as Argentina. Deforestation is the third biggest source of global-warming gases. The good news is that reforestation is gaining ground in the nothern hemisphere, and there has been some progress towards offering financial incentives to protect native forests rather than cut them down. A 2006 UN initiative to plant at least a billion trees a year has reached more than double its target.

> Pollution and waste: Annual production of plastics has more than doubled in the past two decades to 265 million tonnes, half of which is used for one-off applications. Plastics decompose very slowly, creating a major long-term environmental hazard.

On the other hand, the number of oil-tanker spills have declined over the past 20 years; lead in petrol, or gasoline, is close to being eliminated; and there is a worldwide treaty to curb the infamous “Dirty Dozen” persistent organic pollutants – chemicals that biodegrade so slowly that they accumulate in the food chain. Also on the plus side, consumers are more sensitive to recycling, provided it is not too costly. – AFP

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Will the summit help the sick planet?


TWENTY years ago, a burst of sunny optimism radiated from Rio de Janeiro as world leaders staged a meeting that would prove pivotal. Amid post-Cold War euphoria and a desire to tackle the problems of the looming millennium, the UN’s 1992 Earth Summit inscribed protection of the planet on the world’s priority list.

It set down a blueprint, Agenda 21, for sustaining nature rather than destroying it, and created UN mechanisms designed to brake the oncoming juggernauts of climate change, desertification and species loss. Leaders will gather once more in Rio on June 20-22 for the 20-year follow-up to that great event.

But how very different the world is today, and how much darker the mood.

By almost every yardstick, as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reported in a landmark assessment last week, our planet is sicker than ever. Despite the rising prosperity in China, India and other emerging giants, billions remain in the rut of poverty. And as the world’s financial calamity nears its fourth anniversary, the ability – and will – of countries to embrace green growth is badly constrained.

“Governments are mired in crisis and their eyes are fixed on the present, whereas Rio+20 requires them to calmly draw up a future for the planet,” Brice Lalonde, a former French environment minister who is co-coordinator of the summit, said.

Around 115 leaders are expected for the summit, which will cap more than a week of meetings gathering as many as 50,000 activists, business executives and policymakers.

This frenzy of contacts and deal-making could well be more fruitful than the UN process itself, say some. The nation-state system remains traumatised by the failures of the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen. There is “a risk of division between developed countries, emerging countries, poor countries, the risk of failure because there may be other pressing matters,” France’s new president, Francois Hollande, said on friday.

“The world is today turned towards the economic crisis, the financial crisis, and is worried about a certain number of conflicts, such as Syria… might easily turn away from what is however the top priority, the environment.”

Already, many in the green movement fear that Rio+20 will fall dismally short of guiding the planet towards better health and a brighter future 20 years from now.

Behind the scenes, there is incipient panic over the draft summit communique. The charter is supposed to sum up the challenges and spell out pledges to nurture the oceans, roll back climate change, promote clean growth and provide decent water, sanitation and electricity for all. There have so far been three rounds of “informal informal” negotiations on the document, the last of which – an emergency session – ran in New York from May 29 to June 2.

Out of 329 paragraphs, only 70, or 21%, have been settled. The rest of the text is lost in a sea of brackets, denoting discord, as countries squabble over the level of ambition. The biggest divergences lie in four areas, according to sources close to the negotiations. They include action on climate change, protecting the oceans and achieving food security, and whether “Sustainable Development Goals” should replace the Millennium Development Goals when these objectives expire in 2015.

The drafting panel meets in Rio for three days from tomorrow in a new bid to end the deadlock. For radicals, a parallel “People’s Summit” in Rio will be the chance to ram home their message that the world’s economic model is broken and tinkering with it is pointless. In their view, it has neither protected the environment nor ended poverty, and now its failure has engulfed many rich countries too. – AFP

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Suffering poor: A slum dweller washes his clothes in stagnant water at Nonadanga in Kolkata. Globally, more than 2.5 billion people are in need of decent sanitation.

Fouling our world

Man’s consumption is driving unprecedented environmental damage.POPULATION growth and unsustainable consumption are driving Earth towards “unprecedented” environmental destruction, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has warned.

Of 90 key goals to protect the environment, only four have seen good progress, it said in a planetary assessment issued only every five years. “If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail and cannot be reversed and “decoupled”, then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation,” said UNEP executive director Achim Steiner.

The phonebook-sized report, the fifth edition of the Global Environment Outlook (GEO), was issued ahead of the June 20 to 22 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro – the 20-year follow-up to the landmark Earth Summit.

Preceded by a series of forums gathering as many as 50,000 policy-makers, business executives and activists, the summit aims at plotting a course for green development over the next two decades. But the report warned of many challenges, painting a tableau of a planet whose resources were being stressed into the red zone.

Since 1950, the world’s population has doubled to seven billion and is on course for around 9.3 billion by 2050 and some 10 billion by 2100. At the same time, use of natural resources has zoomed as emerging countries follow rich economies in a lifestyle that is gluttonous on energy and use of water, habitat and fisheries.

“The scale, spread and rate of change of global drivers are without precedent. Burgeoning populations and growing economies are pushing environmental systems to destabilising limits,” said the report.

It analysed 90 objectives for the environment identified by UN members. Only four have seen significant progress: scrapping chlorofluorocarbon chemicals that damage Earth’s protective ozone layer; removing lead from fuel; increasing access to clean water for the poor; and boosting research to reduce marine pollution.

In 40 goals that UN member states asked to be monitored, there was “some” progress, such as expanding national parks and tackling deforestation. But there was little or no progress in 24 others, including curbing climate change, fisheries depletion and desertification.

“The scientific evidence, built over decades, is overwhelming and leaves little room for doubt,” Steiner said last week. “The moment has come to put away the paralysis of indecision, acknowledge the facts and face up to the common humanity that unites all peoples. Rio+20 is a moment to turn sustainable development from aspiration and patchy implementation into a genuine path to progress and prosperity for this and the generations to come.”

For climate change, the last decade was the warmest on record, and in 2010 emissions from fossil fuels were the highest ever.

“Under current models, greenhouse gas emissions could double over the next 50 years, leading to (a) rise in global temperature of 3°C or more by the end of the century,” UNEP said. “The annual economic damage from climate change is estimated at 1% to 2% of world GDP by 2100 if temperatures increase by 2.5°C,” it warned. The UN’s target is 2°C. However, there have been gains in energy efficiency and “some progress” towards meeting emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol, UNEP said.

For eight goals, including preservation of coral reefs, things have deteriorated. The world fell far short of meeting a Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of significantly reducing destruction of biodiversity by 2010.

“Around 20% of vertebrate species are under threat,” said UNEP. “The extinction risk is increasing faster for corals than for any other group of living organisms, with the condition of coral reefs declining by 38% since 1980. Rapid contraction is projected by 2050.”

Data was insufficient to enable a judgment on the 14 other goals. The GEO report proposed a panoply of remedial measures for Earth’s population to start living within its means, including more efficient use of energy and eco-friendlier resources.

Also important was to redefine human progress so that it goes beyond the simple yardstick of economic growth to include quality of life issues. The Rio+20 Summit is to assess progress since the 1992 Earth Summit, considered a landmark for creating awareness on climate change and biodiversity. Among ideas that are being debated for the summit is to set down “Sustainable Development Goals” that would succeed the MDGs when their deadline comes up in 2015. – AFP

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The world in figures

A SNAPSHOT of the world ahead of the June 20-22 Rio Summit on Sustainable Development.

> Population: Seven billion today, a doubling since 1950, and set to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050, of which two-thirds will live in cities. The population in poor countries has increased more than fourfold since 1961. Forty percent of the world’s population today now lives within 100km of the shoreline.

> Ecological footprint: Mankind today is gobbling up 50% more of the biosphere for our resources than it can sustain. Brazil, China, India and Indonesia have seen their per-capita footprint increase by two-thirds over the past half century. The United States and China together use up nearly half of the global biocapacity. In per capita terms, rich countries’ footprints are around four or five times greater than that of poor economies. The heftiest impacts per capita are made by Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates respectively.

> Poverty: The number of people living on US$1.25 (Euro1 or RM3.75) a day fell from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 1.289 billion in 2008, or 22% of the developing world. For the first time in 20 years, the proportion of Africans living in extreme poverty has fallen, with 47% living below this threshold in 2008 compared with 52% in 2005. But 43% of the population in developing countries live on less than US$2 (1.6 Euros or RM6) a day.

> Basic services: More than 2.5 billion people are in need of decent sanitation and nearly one in 10 has yet to gain access to “improved” drinking water, as defined under the UN’s 2015 development goals. 1.4 billion people do not have electricity.

> Climate change: Emissions of man-made greenhouse gases are scaling new peaks and the early signs of climate change are already visible, in glacier melt, changed snowfall and habits of migrating species. Current pledges for curbing carbon emissions will lead to warming of 3.5°C, massively overshooting the UN target of 2°C and enhancing the risk of flood, drought, storms and rising seas.

> Biodiversity: In 2002, the international community pledged to slow biodiversity decline by 2010, and incorporated the target into the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. But the drop-off has accelerated, driven especially by habitat loss. A fifth of mammals, 30% of amphibians, 12% of known birds, and more than a quarter of reef-building corals face extinction, according to the Red List of threatened species.

> Energy: World energy consumption rose by 5.6% in 2010 and is set to double by 2030. Fossil fuels account for more than 80% of the energy supply, followed by renewables with around 13%, of which biofuels is by far the biggest contributor. In rural Africa, 85% of the population relies on biomass for energy.

> Depleted resources: Between 2000 and 2010, 13 million hectares of forests disappeared each year, accounting for the third biggest single source of greenhouse gas. Fish catches increased fivefold between 1950 and 2005. Some 30% of fisheries are over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. By 2050, the world will produce 13.1 billion tonnes of waste annually, a fifth more than today.

> Food: One person in seven suffers from malnourishment. Demand for food will increase by some 70% by 2050, which will lead to a nearly 20% increase in global agricultural water consumption. Between 2000 and 2010, 203 million hectares of land were transferred to foreign control, especially to China, petro-economies in the Gulf and rich countries eager for food security and biofuels. Two-thirds of the transactions were in Africa and 14% in Asia.

> Taxes and subsidies: Subsidies for fossil fuels amounted to US$312bil in 2009. A tax of 0.005 on foreign exchange trading could raise US$40bil (RM120bil) a year in additional aid for poor countries, which in 2010 stood at US$130bil. – AFP

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