Monday, June 18, 2012

Rio Plus 20

The United Nations Conferences on Sustainable Development begins this week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conference is twenty years after the Earth Summit in Rio, which drew 178 nations and some 100 heads of state. Last week's issue of Nature (June 7) has a good summary of the three major international treaties that came about as a result of the Earth Summit.

Though these treaties were heralded at the time by Richard Benedick, who had negotiated the ozone accord for the US as landmarks: "the history books will refer to this day as a landmark in a process that will save the planet from deterioration", he and others cautioned that process would be slow.

Slow doesn't begin to describe it.
climate change, rio, rio+20
Look at the report card for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. For the main assignment of stabilizing greenhouse-gas emissions, a grade of F. Some good news in the subsidiary assignments of advancing climate research and policy analysis (A) and establishing a diplomatic process (A) -- hey, at least there are meetings -- but negligible progress on "promoting and dispersing climate-friendly technologies (D). 

Next up is the report card for the Convention on Biological Diversity. 
convention on biological diversity, rio, rio+20, report card

This time the main assignment was to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss. Result: Fail
There is progress in protecting ecosystems (C) but not much progress in sharing the wealth provided by gene diversity (E) or recognizing indigenous rights (D). I'm not sure why regulating genetically modified organisms gets an A, because we still don't have GMO labelling here in the US, so there's room for improvement here too. 

The third report card was for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Like the Convention on Biological Diversity, this Convention is little discussed in the Western media, probably because this is perceived as a third world problem though something like 40% of the US is vulnerable to desertification.
convention to combat desertification, rio, rio+20
Now the main assignment was to "reverse desertification and land degradation" but again the result was the same: fail.  The most recent figures had 15% of land degrading in 1991 and that has jumped to 24% of land degrading in 2008.
There is little scientific investment for training on this issue (F) and little funding to help the poorer nations preserve their land and prevent degradation (E).

So much for the bad news. Is there any good news? Well, as another article points out in the same issue, Brazil has significantly slowed its deforestation... 

What can we expect at Rio+20? Let's see, there's a debt crisis in Europe and it's an election year in the US, which means few Western countries will be showing up with their checkbooks in hand. Expect finger pointing and footdragging.

The article doesn't mention that other report card issued that day: a stirring speech by 12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki who chastises all the adults in the room for destroying her future. If you don't know how to fix it, she says, don't break it: It's amazing how little has changed. 

All figures from Tollefson, J. and Gilbert, N., 2012, Nature, volume 486, pp 20-23.

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