By Stephen Leahy, IPS News, March 9, 2012
The upcoming Rio+20 conference has to be the moment in human history when the nations of the world come together to find ways to ensure the very survival of humanity, many science and environmental experts believe.
Except that governments, the media and the public aren't paying attention to the "planetary emergency" unfolding around them. The situation is like firefighters yelling "fire" in crowded room and still no listens.
"The situation is absolutely desperate and yet there's nothing on the front pages or on the agenda of world leaders," said Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, an international environmental organisation based in Ottawa.
"The lack of attention is a tragedy," said Mooney, who has 40 years experience in international environment and development issues.
Humanity is failing in its stewardship of the planet. An incredible 85 percent of the world's oceans are in trouble, said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group, a U.S. organisation.
Rio+20 is a major opportunity to turn this around, Lieberman told IPS.
The Jun. 20-22 Rio+20 meet is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio. The Earth Summit captured world attention, with leaders from most countries and some 10,000 media attending.
It gave birth to the most important environmental treaties on climate change, biodiversity and land degradation and desertification. World leaders also endorsed Agenda 21, a detailed blueprint on how nations can practice sustainable development.
Years of preparation went into the 1992 Summit, while only months have gone into Rio+20.
"There hasn't been nearly enough preparation to be able to sign treaties," said Lieberman. It's been a struggle to get many governments like such as the US to focus on Rio+20 at all she said.
"Governments are not giving this opportunity enough importance given the mess we are in," said Lisa Speer, director of the international oceans programme at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. NGO.
"Planetary emergency" is how many in the world's scientific community describe "the mess we are in". They will detail their comprehensive state of the planet assessment at the "Planet Under Pressure" conference in London Mar. 26-29.
That assessment will summarise the overwhelming evidence that "the continued functioning of the Earth system as we know it is at risk," conference organisers previously told IPS.
Climate change, which is overheating the planet and making the oceans more acidic, is just one of the major challenges. Another is the ongoing decline of biodiversity, where so many plants and animals are going extinct that the Earth's living systems on which humanity depends are unraveling.
Fresh water is another "planetary boundary" humanity is pushing up against. Water use has increased six-fold in the past century and in many places the quality of water resources has been degraded. Other challenges include increasing poverty, food and energy security, and the current financial and economic instability.
Given the range of major challenges, deciding what will be on the Rio+20 agenda has taken up most of the discussion so far. Officially, Rio+20 has seven major themes like oceans, food and jobs, and 12 major issue areas, such as trade and the green economy, sustainable cities, and international governance.
With only three months until the 2012 Summit, there is a tremendous amount of work underway now, said Amy Fraenkel, regional director of the U.N. Environment Programme's Regional Office for North America.
"There will be a major effort to get some results, to get some agreements," said Fraenkel.
"Rio+20 is not an endpoint," she cautioned. "It is a milestone for re-commitment to address the major challenges we are facing."
One major expected outcome is agreement on the green economy - a transition towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy that will alleviate poverty and bring more jobs. Rio+20 is expected to define what the green economy entails and the ways to get there.
A first and essential step in a green transition is for nations to commit to phasing out harmful and unsustainable subsidies for fossil fuels, fisheries and industrial agriculture.
"Governments have come to this late so it's hard to guess what will happen," said ETC Group's Mooney.
The major issue at Rio+20 will be defining exactly what the green economy will be. There is no consensus yet, he told IPS. Civil society organisations from around the world have been discussing this for well over a year and those from "the global South are unanimous in their opposition to the 'financialisation' of nature", he said.
This includes opposition to market-based mechanisms for conservation or payments from carbon markets for protecting forests.
According to Mooney, some countries and large corporations see the green economy in terms of a post-petroleum future where resources and energy for industrial production comes from biomass and other living things. Most of those "living resources" are in the global South and local people rightly fear a massive land grab, he said.
Foreign investors have already gained access to more than 35 million hectares in Africa, Asia and South America for food and biofuel production according to GRAIN, a small NGO working with small farmers and farming communities.
"I think it (RIO+20) will be an important meeting," Mooney said. "The fight over what the green economy will be is key."