A Global Path to Sustainable Development

By Júlia Ribeiro, NVSWCD Spring Intern, São Paulo, Brazil

Twenty years ago, environmental ambassadors from all over the globe came to Rio de Janeiro. Ten years ago, they gathered again in Johannesburg. This June, Rio de Janeiro again hosted the world’s leaders for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as the RIO+20 Earth Summit.

The first Earth Summit conferences produced a paradigm shift as governments adopted a new model of sustainable development for their nations. However, even the groundbreaking 1992 Earth Summit was not without precedent. Global environmental leaders had met in Stockholm 20 years earlier in 1972, the first time scientists, governments and NGOs from developed and developing countries came together to talk about the relationship between economic development and environmental degradation and people’s right to a healthy and productive environment.

However, after the 1972 Stockholm conference, environmental concerns were not integrated into development planning and countries continued to develop economically without promoting environmentally sustainability. Environmental exploitation was still considered to be the necessary “dark side” of economic and industrial development. Moreover, concerns about global warming, ozone depletion and the accelerated and unsustainable use of natural resources continued to rise. Facing this reality, the UN called for the 1992 summit in Rio de Janeiro.

1992 Earth Summit logoThe 1992 Earth Summit’s main goal was to help the 178 governments in attendance rethink economic development through the lens of sustainability. The protection of air, land and water; conservation of biological diversity, fauna, flora and natural resources; climate change and reduction of greenhouse gases emissions and alternative sources of energy were addressed as key points on the road to global sustainable development.

Agenda 21, an environmental plan of action, was one of the most important documents produced at the 1992 conference. Its main goals were:

(a) To ensure that nations would develop themselves in a sustainable manner, changing patterns of production and consumption;

(b) To eliminate poverty through improvements in energy efficiency, use of natural resources and quality of life ensuring access to shelter, clean water, sewage and solid waste treatment;

(c) To improve management of chemicals and waste in order to decrease deaths caused by contaminated water and food; and

(d) To conserve and protect natural resources.

Progress has been made over the last twenty years. Today’s policymakers, NGOs and businesses emphasize sustainable development and use the expression “go green.” A new, broad public awareness of the environmental crisis we are facing may be one of the foremost achievements of the past two decades. However, what exactly has happened in the target areas established in Agenda 21? Are we on the right track to sustainable development? Here are some numbers that show the global reality 20 years later.

Negative Indicators

  • Since 1992, the human population has grown by 1,450,000,000 people (increase of 26%);
  • The average global citizen consumes today 43kg of meat per year, up from 34kg in 1992;
  • The global use of natural resources has increased 41% since 1992;
  • Global CO2 emissions increased 36% and the average amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increased 9% since 1992;
  • Global mean temperature increased 4°C between 1992 and 2010;
  • Ten hottest years on record have occurred since 1998;
  • Sea level has been rising at an average of 2.5mm per year since 1992;
  • Since 1992, 300 million hectares of forest were lost;
  • Biodiversity has declined by 12% at the global level and 30% in the tropics;
  • Use of fertilizers has increased significantly since 1992;
  • Electricity production has increased 66%, but there are still 1,440 million people without access to electricity;
  • Fossil fuels still dominate energy production for electricity, heating, transportation and industrial uses. The use of fossil fuel has increased, adding up to 80%.

Positive Indicators

  • There is a general decline in emissions, energy and material use per unit of output, which means that we are becoming more efficient in the way we use the resources.
  • Over the past decade the expansion of the “ozone hole” has halted;
  • Since 1990, the total plantation extent represents an area equivalent of 7% of the total forest area globally;
  • Global access to clean drinking water increased 13% since 1990, very close to the 2015 target;
  • Sanitation coverage has also increased 13%, however this is not close to the 2015 target;
  • The number of oil spills caused by accidents has decreased significantly since 1992;
  • The amount of renewable energy reached 13% of global energy production in 2008, but its use is still modest compared to fossil fuels;
  • Since 1992, investments in sustainable energy have increased 540%.

Source: Keeping Track of Our Changing Environment: From Rio to Rio+20 (1992-2012). United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi. Published October 2011.

The United Nations, environmentalists, government officials and citizens have seen RIO+20 as essential for policymakers and government officials to rethink and renew their commitment to sustainable development and stopping environmental degradation. Among the various new and emerging themes that were discussed at the June 2012 conference in Rio de Janeiro, two were highlighted:

2012 Earth Summit logo

Green Economy, in the context of Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, focused on the shift from the modern economic model, based on high production and consumption and overuse of natural resources, to a green economy that takes the scarcity of natural resources in consideration and supports the reduction of poverty through economic development.

Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development targeted proposals for national and international institutional reforms to face the challenges of achieving sustainable development in the environment, economy and society.

RIO+20 has been an opportunity for us to look at what has been done already. It was also an opportunity to look ahead to see the world we want in 20 years from now. Personally, I want to see nations developing while protecting their natural areas and resources and decreasing the gap between developed and developing countries. I want to use renewable energy at my house and biofuel in my car; I want to know that I live in a sustainable world and that future generations will have access to the same resources I had in my generation.

I hope to see governments reinforcing their commitment to sustainable development and populations encouraging their governments to move forward on these issues. Much still needs to be done to achieve these goals, but the RIO+20 Earth Summit has been an important opportunity to put the world on the right path towards sustainable development.

Júlia Ribeiro studied at Northern Virginia Community College in 2011-2012 through a program funded by the U.S. Department of State.

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