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THERE'S TIME: 20 years after the failed Rio Earth Summit, countries get another chance to blow away the hot air
TWENTY years ago, heads of states at the Earth Summit pledged a change of course on the development path and urgent action to address environmental problems. It was a noble declaration undertaken by world leaders. Agenda 21 was meant to be the world's blueprint to achieve sustainable development. But the words were not matched by the results.
A major scientific conference in London recently, "Planet Under Pressure", painted an uncertain future for humanity. Reaffirming what was highlighted by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment seven years ago, the conference stated that over the last 50 years, human activities have resulted in many adverse changes in the global environment.
Key indicators of the planet's disconcerting state of health include:
HIGHER levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere;
PHOSPHORUS extraction and fertiliser production causing many large dead zones in coastal areas;
RISING air and ocean temperatures;
MELTING sea ice, polar ice sheets and Arctic permafrost;
RISING sea levels and ocean acidification;
BIODIVERSITY loss due to land use changes; and,
GROWING consumption of freshwater supplies and energy by a growing global population.
At a planetary level, humanity is altering the carbon, water and nitrogen cycles so much that the designation of a new time in the planet's geological history, the "Anthroposcene", an epoch marked by the profound environmental impacts of humans, is under official scientific consideration.
Speakers at the London conference pointed to potentially-dangerous environmental tipping points, among them, the melting of the polar ice sheets and the thawing of perennially frozen northern permafrost soils.
Research estimates the permafrost alone stores the equivalent of roughly twice the carbon in the atmosphere. Under a "high warming scenario", projected releases of greenhouse gas emissions from melting Arctic permafrost are the equivalent of more than 30 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2040, more than 230 gigatonnes by 2100 and more than 550 gigatonnes by 2300. By comparison, fossil fuel emissions today are roughly 10 gigatonnes per year.
The "State of the Planet" is likened to a doctor saying: "Look, you may not feel too sick at the moment, but you've got high blood pressure, your cholesterol is going up, and your lifestyle is not conducive to good health. There is, however, time to turn these trends around."
Indeed, there are signs that some drivers of global change are slowing or changing.
Population growth is slowing and will level off; the intensity of energy and carbon required for a unit of production is declining; agricultural intensification is slowing and forests are starting to expand in some regions.
However, average resource consumption per person, high in some regions, is growing steeply in emerging economies even as many poor people cannot meet basic human needs.
In some countries, people are consuming far too much, including fuel, water and other resources. We have a long way to go to turn things around, including the need to reform the way we measure wealth to reflect changes in natural and human capital, to enlarge our economic perspective beyond gross domestic product.
Time is running out to minimise the risk of setting in motion irreversible and long-term climate change and other dramatic changes to earth's life support system.
A golden opportunity to bridge the gap between science and policy is awaiting the international community at Rio+20 next month, where there will be, for the first time in many decades, a convergence of global will, attitudes and enabling conditions to address global sustainability challenges.
This convergence has evolved through a longstanding debate on reform of international environmental governance, which essentially began 40 years ago. World leaders have expounded on the precarious nature of our planet and the need to lift people out of poverty. They've embraced and repeated the rhetoric that the status quo is not an option; and so the time has come to act.
Today, we have reached the point where we have a decent understanding of global environmental challenges and, as a result, are better able to shape a more effective international environmental governance regime and, finally, reverse the trend of continued environmental degradation.
One of the priorities is recognising that governance systems to protect the environment have failed to meet expectations.
World leaders must recognise that taking the modest and incremental approach they took in Rio 20 years ago is not enough. Only a major overhaul of the governance system will drive the reforms needed to address the challenges of environmental sustainability.
So how do we reform international environmental governance?
Upgrading the United Nations Environment Programme to a full-fledged UN agency is one approach that has wide international support.
Such a step would provide greater authority and more secure funding to the organisation anchoring global efforts for the environment, and facilitate the creation and enforcement of international regulations and standards.
A specialised agency on the environment within the context of sustainable development, whereby social and economic aspects are not neglected, is critically needed now more than ever.
As we continue the drive for more efficient resource use, it is widely recognised that natural resource consumption must be decoupled from economic growth, that consumption should conform to the principles of sustainability, and that new paradigms and solutions should be applied for progress towards a green economy.
Rio+20 is an opportunity to redress the deteriorating state of the environment and the consequential impacts experienced by the poorest and most vulnerable parts of society. It offers a chance to act on the pledges of the Earth Summit in 1992 and move further towards their fulfilment.
The world will be watching and future generations depend on concrete actions taken at Rio+20.