Expert Comment: The future's bright, but is it green?Thursday 17 May 2012
Liverpool Hope Geography Department's Stephen Axon discusses the forthcoming Rio+20 summit on sustainability.
Climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss are not predictions or apocalyptic cinematic fantasies. They are realities. These environmental issues are having severe impacts on both the physical and human environments. As such, there have been calls from scientists, environmentalists, politicians and the public for these issues to be addressed. However, this is not a simple task. Addressing major issues such as climate change involves reorientating our lifestyles and economies towards sustainability. Deciding on what constitutes sustainable development and how to implement sustainability policies is not only a contentious issue, but also a challenge itself.
The Rio+20 summit seeks international collaboration on some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time. The concepts of sustainability and sustainable development have been debated for the past 30 years. The landmark Rio Earth Summit in 1992 identified the principles for action towards sustainable development. Successive conferences such as the World Summit on Sustainable Development have sought to develop the concept of sustainability. Previous outcomes of these conferences have included Agenda 21 which has raised substantial awareness of environmental issues and placed the environment on the international political agenda.
Major international conferences on sustainability are not without criticism. Critics highlight the weaknesses of the forum, which direction it takes and ultimately its outcome. This conference will undoubtedly receive the same criticism. Previous conferences have been criticised for advocating policies that are insufficient to address major environmental challenges. Others criticise the outcomes as being unrealistic. Whereas others criticise that often these conferences are led by northern hemispheric states and that small island developing states have little input and impact. One weakness that is often highlighted is that those who speak at the conference will “talk the talk” but not “walk the walk”. The environmental rhetoric will be good, but outcomes are also required.
However, there are a multitude of significant barriers which could impede progress at Rio+20. Like other major international conferences (such as the 2009 Copenhagen and 2011 Durban conferences on climate change), the role of countries such as China, the US, India, Brazil and Canada is integral for a positive outcome and a potential new deal on sustainable development. Appropriate dialogue, understanding and collaboration are required for this conference to be successful.
The image of our planet as seen from space is a powerful, symbolic picture used in numerous environmental movements. It reminds me that we have only one planet, one Earth, one home. We are burning its resources at a rate which is unsustainable. A transition towards sustainability is required. Soon. So is the future bright and could it be green? That depends on the dialogue between politicians in Rio who have an opportunity to lead us into a new sustainable future.