By Thin Lei Win
SEOUL (AlertNet) – Will the next Earth Summit in 2012 kick start a fundamental change by pushing countries to embark on a path of development that is sustainable? Or will it be just another date in a long list of international calendar events?
This was the question posed by Rae Kwon Chung, director of the environment and development division of the United Nations’ Asia Pacific commission, on Monday to a group of activists and civil society groups who have gathered in Seoul for a two-day preparatory meeting for the Summit.
"While global GDP more than doubled between 1981 and 2005, 60 percent of the world's ecosystems have degraded,” he said at the opening session of the meeting, organised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
“What is clear is that the current patterns of growth will eventually undermine the sources of livelihood and the poor and the vulnerable will be worse off,” he said.
"Rio+20 is an opportunity to re-think, re-order and restructure governance” of environmental systems as part of a broader push toward sustainable development, he said.
Better known as Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) will take place next June in Rio de Janeiro, 20 years after the first Earth Summit there was hailed as a landmark meeting.
The 1992 gathering, attended by more than 100 heads of state or governments, created a wide-ranging blueprint for action to achieve sustainable development worldwide, as well as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Rio+20 is aiming to secure renewed political commitment to sustainable development. The plan is to focus on two specific themes: how to make the world’s economy greener while improving sustainable development and poverty eradication, and how to create a better institutional framework for sustainable development.
As the world’s population grows, competition for scarce resources increases and climate change brings more extreme weather and threatens food production, “we are on the threshold of an unprecedented turning point," Chung told the audience.
"We know what we're doing to the world and we know what needs to be done to fix it. Rio+20 is an opportunity to put that knowledge into action,” Chung said.
GREEN OR GREED ECONOMY?
Asia Pacific accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population and 37 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, yet millions continue to live in squalor with little access to water and essential public services.
Environmental activists and groups point to this as an example of how the current economic model is flawed and lacks equity, a buzzword during the day’s proceedings.
They say the region is facing severe environmental problems that climate change could worsen, including desertification and land degradation in north Asia, drought and sea level rise in the Pacific, rising competition for water and energy in south and central Asia and increasing dependence on fossil fuels in Southeast Asia.
There is an urgent need for better public policies to reverse this trend, Chung said.
“The big question is then how to make the shift to a green economy,” he said.
There is contention, however, from non-government organisations over the term ‘green economy’. Many say the term focuses too much attention on economic and science issues and ignores two other important aspects of sustainable development - social and environmental needs.
Young-Woo Park, UNEP’s regional director for Asia Pacific, said the growing focus on building a green economy does not replace sustainable development efforts, but could be an effective instrument to reduce poverty.
Uchita de Zoysa, executive director of the Sri Lanka-based Centre for Environment and Development, was not convinced.
Repackaging and reselling sustainable development as green economic growth is creating confusion, he told AlertNet.
“New green technology would mean there are going to be intellectual property rights, controlled by a small group of people on Earth,” he said.
He called Rio+20 “a sad, fragmented, isolated and confused process.”
“1992 was a great unifier. 2012 is the great divider, where the focus is on the green economy,” he said. “Is this another way of justifying greed growth in a green manner?”