Rio+20: Will We See Real Solutions This Time?

Oftentimes it is said that the only real chance for solutions to the climate crisis is to have the nations of the world come together and commit to progress and change. Until every country is committed, no one nation is prepared to stick its neck out and cut emissions, giving them an economic disadvantage while the rest of the world continues on with business as usual.

That’s why China and the US, the two biggest emitters on the planet are hesitant to make drastic cuts. Economy wins out over environment. Canada too feels that sitting on the world’s largest source of bitumen in the Alberta tar sands is fair game to exploit when the world wants the oil it can produce, even if it is the dirtiest oil on the planet. (I liken that reasoning to this analogy: oil is the drug, the world is the junkie, and Canada is the dealer.)

Kyoto. Copenhagen. Durban. Names associated with collective international meetings where this problem has been tackled before. Generally unsuccesfully given our track record so far. Next week the Rio+20 meeting will be taking place to try yet again to make some headway on this issue. Officially known as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the Rio+20 will bring together representatives from nations all over the world June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. World leaders will be there along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations.

Here’s UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with a message about his personal goals:

The reason it’s called the Rio+20 is because it marks the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) which also took place in Rio de Janeiro. The upcoming conference promises to look at seven priorities: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.

The conference will also focus on sustainable development, the concept that we have to ensure we meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. It essentially looks to create a long-range plan for global development.

Sustainable development is based on three pillars: economic development, social development, and environmental protection. As far as those three pillars go, our track record as a species so far has been to focus mostly on the first, less so on the second, and leaving the third largely ignored.

Long-range planning is difficult on a global scale. Democratic governments aren’t elected for long terms. They’re usually only in power for four or five years at a time. Only dictatorships have the luxury of anticipating still being in power for many years to come after they’re established. And with some of the changes witnessed in recent years in Iraq, Libya and Egypt, even that isn’t a guarantee. If a government has only four years to try to get things done, it will do what it needs to in order to get reelected for the next election.

It’s very difficult for governments to do what’s right if it’s unpopular, because they sacrifice the chance to do other things they want to accomplish. Sometimes they have to do the popular thing (e.g. lower taxes) to gain favour, even if they know it’s not in the best interests of the country as a whole. But that way they can continue on with their agendas after the next election. It’s always a compromise in that regard.

So if the right thing in Canada is to shut down the Alberta tar sands, you’re not likely to find any elected government to do it, whether conservative, liberal or the New Democratic Party (currently the official opposition). The Green Party would want to put a stop to generating the dirtiest oil on the planet, but at this point with only one seat in parliament, the opportunity for them to form a government is still a ways off.

Hopefully Rio+20 will make some progress. Deep down I don’t believe there will be much real change, though I’d love to be proven wrong. Most times these sorts of events pay a lot of lip service to broad strokes, or what I call motherhood statements. “We have to put an end to poverty and starvation!” “We have to ensure clean drinking water for everyone on the planet!” We have to guarantee that our children and their children will have a viable planet to live on!” All true statements. But concrete realities of how to accomplish those goals are what’s needed, not mere platitudes.

Check out what happens in Rio de Janeiro next weekend and see if things will be different afterwards. I certainly hope so, for all our sakes.

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