Prospects For Rio+20 | June 18, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 25 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 25 | p. 5 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: June 18, 2012

Prospects For Rio+20

Department: Editor's Page
Keywords: Rio+20 Earth Summit, sustainability, climate control

No one expects much of anything concrete to come out of the United Nations’ Rio+20 Earth Summit being held this week in Rio de Janeiro. Why should they? As the UN-sponsored climate-change talks in Copenhagen in 2009 made abundantly clear, the U.S. and China—the two largest greenhouse gas emitters—have no interest whatsoever in sacrificing economic growth to preserve Earth’s environment.

There will be a lot of talk in Rio about sustainability, the need to preserve species, and the dangers of climate change, but nothing substantive will come of it. Forty years ago at the UN Conference on the Human Environment, 119 nations met to discuss environmental concerns and established the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment & Development—the original Rio Earth Summit—approved the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Agenda 21, which UNEP’s recently released “Global Environmental Outlook” (GEO-5) describes as “a blueprint for the introduction of sustainable development.”

How did that work out? The Framework Convention on Climate Change led to the Kyoto protocol in 1997, which the U.S. signed but never ratified. The Kyoto protocol committed 37 industrialized countries to specific cuts in their emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Those countries have, in fact, reduced their overall output of greenhouse gases, but as Jeff Tollefson and Natasha Gilbert point out in an article in the June 7 issue of Nature (DOI: 10.1038/486020a), “The climate numbers are downright discouraging. The world pumped 22.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 1990. … By 2010 that amount had increased roughly 45% to 33 billion tonnes. Carbon dioxide emissions skyrocketed by more than 5% in 2010 alone, marking the fastest growth in more than two decades.”

What about Agenda 21? According to a story in the Feb. 3 New York Times, some right-wing crazies in the U.S. “are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.” I never thought that one could demonize the concept of sustainability. Naturally, I was wrong.

As bad as things are, and the June 7 special issue of Nature focused on Rio+20 issues and GEO-5 makes it clear that they’re pretty bad, I detect a glimmer of hope in a couple of things I’ve read in the past few weeks. One is another article in the June 7 Nature by Pavan Sukhdev, CEO of the environmental consulting firm GIST Advisory, entitled “Sustainability: The Corporate Climate Overhaul” (DOI: 10.1038/486027a). Sukhdev argues, “for effective climate-change or biodiversity solutions, members of the corporate world need to be brought to the table as ethical stewards of shared planetary resources, and not, as they have been so far, as self-interested exploiters of common wealth.” Sukhdev suggests that incentives can be put in place to create a new type of corporation, one that is still profitable but one that also “increases human well-being and social equity, and decreases environmental risks and ecological scarcities.”

And the June 11 Wall Street Journal reviewed a book by Roger Scruton, “How To Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism.” I haven’t read the book yet, but the largely positive review says that Scruton makes an argument against economic growth, noting: “A consumer economy, Mr. Scruton argues … eventually consumes itself as it depletes resources for which there are no substitutes.” I never conceived the possibility of reading anything in the Journal that suggested that economic growth might not be an unmitigated blessing.

The glimmer of hope I perceive is that when people begin to argue that we need a new paradigm for business success and a conservative intellectual suggests that we need to transition from a growth economy, we just might be making progress. I hope it’s not too late.

Thanks for reading.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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Steven Earl Salmony (June 18, 2012 8:56 AM)
If we agree to “think globally” about climate destabillization and at least one of its consensually validated principal agencies, it becomes evident that riveting attention on more and more seemingly perpetual GROWTH could be a grave mistake because we are denying how economic and population growth in the communities in which we live cannot continue as it has until now. Each village’s resources are being dissipated, each town’s environment degraded and every city’s fitness as place for our children to inhabit is being threatened. To proclaim something like, ‘the meat of any community plan for the future is, of course, growth’ fails to acknowledge that many villages, towns and cities are already ‘built out’, and also ‘filled in’ with people and pollutants. If the quality of life we enjoy now is to be maintained for the children, then limits on economic and population growth will have to be set. By so doing, we choose to “act locally” and sustainably.

More economic and population growth are soon to become no longer sustainable in many too many places on the surface of Earth because biological constraints and physical limitations are immutably imposed upon ever increasing human consumption, production and population activities of people in many communities where most of us reside. Inasmuch as the Earth is finite with frangible environs, there comes a point at which GROWTH is unsustainable. There is much work to done locally. But that effort cannot reasonably begin without sensibly limiting economic and population growth.

Problems worldwide that are derived from conspicuous overconsumption and rapacious plundering of limited resources, rampant overproduction of unnecessary stuff, and rapid human overpopulation of the Earth can be solved by human thought, judgment and action. After all, the things we have done can be undone. Think of it as ‘the great unwinding of human folly’. Like deconstructing the Tower of Babel. Any species that gives itself the moniker, Homo sapiens sapiens, can do that much, can it not?

“We face a wide-open opportunity to break with the old ways of doing the town’s business…..” That is a true statement. But the necessary “break with the old ways” of continous economic and population growth is not what is occurring. There is a call for a break with the old ways, but the required changes in behavior are not what is being proposed as we plan for the future. What is being proposed and continues to occur is more of the same, old business-as-usual overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, the very activities that appear to be growing unsustainbly. More business-as-usual could soon become patently unsustainable, both locally and globally. A finite planet with the size, composition and environs of the Earth and a community with the boundaries, limited resources and wondrous climate of villages, towns and cities where we live may not be able to sustain much longer the economic and population growth that is occurring on our watch. Perhaps necessary changes away from UNSUSTAINABLE GROWTH and toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises are in the offing.

Think globally while there is still time and act locally before it is too late for human action to make any difference in the clear and presently dangerous course of unfolding human-induced ecological events, both in our planetary home and in our villages, towns and cities. If we choose to review the perspective of a ‘marketwatcher’ who can see what is actually before our eyes, perhaps all of us can get a little more reality-oriented to the world we inhabit and a less deceived by an attractive, flawed ideology that is highly touted and widely shared but evidently illusory and patently unsustainable.

This situation is no longer deniable. During my lifetime, many have understood the Global Predicament we are facing now, but only a few ‘voices in the wilderness’ were willing to speak out loudly and clearly about what everyone can see. It is not a pretty sight. The human community has precipitated a planetary emergency that only humankind is capable of undoing. The present ‘Unsustainable Path’ has to be abandoned in favor of a “road less travelled by”. It is late; there is no time left to waste. Perhaps now we will gather our remarkably abundant, distinctly human resources and respond ably to the daunting, human-induced, global challenges before us, the ones that threaten life as we know it and the integrity of Earth as a fit place for human habitation. Many voices, many more voices are needed for making necessary changes.

Anne T. O'Brien (June 18, 2012 10:40 AM)
And so do we all hope you are right!
Steven Earl Salmony (June 22, 2012 12:09 PM)
Perhaps we are dealing with a collective failure of perception within the leadership of the human community at the Rio Summit that results in an inadequate reality orientation to the world we inhabit as well as to the 'placement' of the human species within the order of living things. Not nearly enough leaders see that there can be no sensibly functioning global economy without the natural resources and ecosystem services only the Earth can provide. No living Earth, no human economy.

There are no substitutes for certain vital resources and environmental stabilization mechanisms of the Earth. Geo-engineering of the Earth and its ecology, as a way of trying to protect and preserve what is being degraded and destroyed on our watch, could be a monumental fool's errand.

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