Opinion, by Nathan Williams

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – A gathering of world leaders for an ‘Earth Summit’ discussing solutions to everything from climate change to the eradication of poverty provokes inevitable cynicism in many people who view such summits as the vanity project of politicians out to save the world.

Barely a year seems to go by without country leaders convening to discuss the world’s biggest challenges, but in the collective consciousness, prompted by a barrage of negative headlines in the media, the state of the world just seems to get worse. It is little surprise then that cynicism abounds and expectations for the next Earth Summit, Rio+20, to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June, are at rock-bottom.

Branding the summit ‘Rio+20’ also generates cynicism, inviting as it does a conversation about the perceived lack of progress since the original Earth Summit in Rio twenty years ago. On top of this, preparations for the summit have reportedly been shambolic, with many claiming the UN and general secretary Ban Ki-moon had no idea what to put on the agenda. With problems stacking up around the world, who could blame him for not knowing where to start?

The reason these summits rarely register as successes is because they are relentlessly hyped by egoistic politicians keen to secure their own legacy. They are always variously the ‘last’, ‘final’ or ‘best’ chance to change the course of events and make the world a better place.

The reality of global decision making can never hope to match the hype. These summits are too often seen as events, a defining moment in time which if not seized, all hope is lost. The truth of course is that they are not events but stages in a process which can lead to significant action being taken – and real change being effected.

In a world seemingly addicted to gloomy news, with war, famine and disease just a click of a mouse away, many would no doubt consider this view hopelessly naïve and optimistic. But a look back to the first Earth Summit in Rio twenty years ago demonstrates what can be achieved when vision, optimism and decision-making combine.

In Rio twenty years ago world leaders agreed for the first time a treaty to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This led to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 which legally committed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent on 1990 figures by 2012. And the world has made significant progress.

In 2010 the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency reported that emissions were ten percent below 1990 levels, significantly under the Kyoto target level. And last year at the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, world leaders agreed – at the last minute – to negotiate a new legally-binding protocol to be introduced in 2020.

Alongside these global set-piece summits, country-blocs (such as the EU) and individual countries have introduced a raft of measures on sustainability, from legally-binding carbon reduction laws, to the EU’s emissions trading scheme. The creation of incentives for the development of renewable energies has also been a key focus for governments – and a major success. By the end of 2010 renewable energy supplied twenty-five percent of global energy capacity, according to the World Council for Renewable Energy.

However it is the host of the first Earth Summit which has made the most startling progress. In 1992 Brazil faced chronic inflation which made the lives of all but the wealthiest a daily struggle. On top of this, deforestation of the Amazon was threatening to spiral out of control.

Confronting climate change was a luxury Brazil couldn’t afford. Fast-forward twenty years and Brazil is now a leader on the global stage for the measures it has taken domestically.

On deforestation the country has taken a tough stance. The National Climate Change Plan requires an 80 percent reduction of Amazon deforestation by 2020. Data released last year by the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais showed that the country is well over three quarters of the way toward meeting that goal. Deforestation could even hit zero if current progress continues.

Brazil has also promoted renewable energy aggressively and effectively. A range of subsidizes and state support means that more than 45 percent of Brazil’s primary energy now comes from renewable sources. Action is also being taken at a state level, the most prominent example of which is the State of São Paulo’s adoption in 2009 of a law requiring a twenty percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 2005 levels.

Looking beyond climate change, Brazil’s anti-poverty initiatives have won praise globally, with the country recording an annual reduction in poverty of 3.2 percent since 1981 according to the World Bank Development Group.

Of course, only someone with delusional tendencies and particularly rose-tinted glasses would fail to acknowledge the other side of the story. There have been many summit failures along the way, most recently in Copenhagen in 2009, global temperatures continues to rise in spite of progress on reducing emissions and boosting renewables. Inequality and poverty still blight many parts of the world.

But there are real reasons for hope. When the chips are down, world leaders have shown encouraging resolve and a collective will to tackle the most intransigent problems humanity has created for itself. We should all hope that Rio+20 proves another successful stage in the longer process of making this planet a sustainable one on which everybody can live comfortably.


  1. With all the negative news on disasters and failures worldwide, it is nice to see a bit of positive thinking, and reports of positive results.


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