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BEIJING, Nov 8 2011 (IPS) - The objective of the Rio+20 Conference (4-6 June 2012) is to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress made to date and the gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits, and address new and emerging challenges.

My association with environmentalism goes back as far as the Stockholm Conference in 1972. The progress made since then in our understanding of environmental issues and our capacity to address them effectively is impressive. Unfortunately, the lack of sufficient progress in the implementation of the commitments made by governments at the 1992 Earth Summit have left us on a course that is unsustainable and indeed threatens the future of humankind. Yet current economic and political difficulties now pre-empt the attention of governments and the public, undermining the prospects of effective action at Rio+20 to establish the green economy that is the key to sustainability.

The “green economy” is not just a slogan: Rio+20 must produce powerful new momentum towards its realisation at the national, local, and global level.

The key to this goal is an immense increase in economic efficiency in the production of goods and services, in the use of energy, in development, and in the use and re-use of resources. The experience of a number of nations, notably Germany and certain other European countries, and Japan, has demonstrated that this is feasible.

The more developed countries which have contributed most to global environmental problems are responsible for and have an interest in fulfilling the commitments they have made to provide developing countries with access to the finances and technologies they need to green their economies.

Rio+20 must go beyond the re-statement of unfulfilled past commitments and the generation of new commitments without any means of enforcing accountability. It must, I contend, present governments with some radical and innovative challenges, for example:

1) At the UN High-level Symposium on Sustainable Development in Beijing (September 8-9, 2011), there was broad support for the initiative to have civil society organisations in each country assess the degree of implementation of the commitments they have made and what they should be expected to agree to at Rio+20. I propose the establishment of a mechanism for continuing and objective evaluation of the performance of countries in implementing of their commitments.

2) The need for the new and additional financial resources has continued to be a primary requirement for less developed countries to make the transition to the Green Economy. However, under current conditions the prospects of obtaining substantial new financial commitments from governments are limited. We should now tap private sources giving them opportunities to invest in the green economy. This was introduced at the Beijing Symposium.

3) Another way countries can make significant progress is to make much greater use of the legal system. This is not a new idea but one which deserves much more attention and more universal application. Principle 21 agreed at the Stockholm Conference provides that “States have … the sovereign right to exploit their own resources … and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” Principle 22 holds that a “State shall cooperate to develop further the international law regarding liability and compensation for the victims of the pollution and other environmental damage caused by activities within the jurisdiction or control of such States to areas beyond their jurisdiction.”

This principle has been invoked in a number of instances dating back to the famous Trail Smelter case in which pollution from a major project in Canada was causing damage in the United States. Granting victims of environmental damage in one country access to the courts of the country in which such damage originated to obtain compensation for it would give practical effect to the Stockholm Principles. Special measures will be required to ensure that the poor who are often the main victims of such damage have full access to this recourse.

There is therefore already a substantial body of experience and knowledge to call upon in extending this concept internationally. Rio+20 could make a unique and important contribution to realisation of the green economy and ensuring that its benefits are fully and fairly shared by the poor and disadvantaged by giving new impetus to this process.

Cities are the centres of our civilisation -the principal sources of environmental deterioration but also the principal sources of solutions. The greening of our cities must be at the centre of our efforts. Many countries have realised that environmental measures must be systemically integrated into the greening of our cities and their impact on the hinterlands with which they are so interdependent. Many countries are already responding to this challenge.

It is important that Rio+20 give a strong impetus to the key role of cities as the centrepiece of the new economy. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Maurice Strong is Senior Adviser to the Secretary-General of Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. He was the Secretary-General of the 1992 Earth Summit and the first Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (www.mauricestrong.net).

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