The Rio Gap

One of the key obstacles to achieving sustainable development is agreeing who will carry the burden. Stopping environmental degradation requires resources. Some argue those resources could be needed somewhere else, such as eradicating poverty. So it could appear that the need to eradicate poverty and the need to stop environmental degradation are in conflict.

ECO does not buy into this argument.  At all.  Environmental degradation is fast becoming the biggest contributor to increased poverty. If we want to eradicate poverty, then we need to invest also in what is leading to more poverty, which includes fighting environmental degradation.

The more scarce resources become, the more sustainability must be at the center of poverty alleviation. The world has no choice but to choose a path that would combine them.  In fact, many developed and developing countries are already providing a lot of good examples on the national and subnational levels, such as developing efficient public transport that reduces CO2 emissions and at the same time increase mobility and affordability, which is needed for economic development.

Now that governments have agreed as little as they have, given the existing and rather pathetic political will now available, the question is what will they do when they go back home. The current conference document, with all its weaknesses, has nonetheless indicated many potential opportunities for further action. There are no hard numerical commitments and actions in the text, but it provides processes for governments to develop these commitments and actions. Such processes include:

  •  establishing an intergovernmental high level political forum that will follow up on the implementation of the sustainable development commitments contained in Agenda 21,
  • committing to promote an integrated approach to planning and building sustainable cities and urban settlements,
  • committing to maintain and restore marine resources to sustainable levels with the aim of achieving these goals for depleted stocks on an urgent basis by 2015,
  • adopting the 10-Year Framework of Programmes (10YFP) on sustainable consumption and production (SCP),
  • resolving to establish an inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process on SDGs that is open to all stakeholders.

There are many other opportunities highlighted within the existing text for governments to take us forward. Nevertheless, this will not happen unless political reality on the ground changes.

The failure of the international process is not because multilateralism is wrong. The process is good. What we lack is political will. The international process can only work within existing political will. If there is no new political will to capture, the process will not do anything.

Political will is not created at international venues, it is created back at home, and on the streets. It is up to the youth and civil society movements to take it forward.

But reality can change, and we saw it in the Arab Spring. What is needed is persistence, and continued action.  Civil society campaigned for years in Egypt to achieve political change against harsh suppression, but they never gave up. Then a tipping point was reached, and everything changed in only one day.

Civil society must use all the anger that exists as a result of the Rio+20 reality check, and then alter that reality.  After all, we are running out of time.

So ECO is going home for now.  We are angry, but that will focus our energy, and we will organize. Because as Nelson Mandela so wisely said: “it always seems impossible, until it is done.”

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