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UN Summit Backs A Green Economy

International: Governments meeting in Brazil seek a new model for economic development

by Cheryl Hogue
June 25, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 26

Credit: Mark Garten/UN
UN Secretary-General Ban bangs the gavel to mark the official opening of the UN’s Rio+20 conference on June 20.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon bangs the gavel to mark the official opening of the UN’s Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Credit: Mark Garten/UN
UN Secretary-General Ban bangs the gavel to mark the official opening of the UN’s Rio+20 conference on June 20.

Governments from around the world meeting in Rio de Janeiro last week endorsed the concept of “greening” the world economy through sustainable development. One area for future action, for example, is improving chemical management throughout the world.

The nonbinding agreement finalized at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development says a green economy should help rid the world of poverty, make economies more robust, improve human welfare, and create jobs while maintaining the healthy functioning of ecosystems. The concept of a green economy, the UN agreement says, “could provide options for policy making but should not be a rigid set of rules.”

“We recognize that the old model for economic development and social advancement is broken,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as he opened the three-day conference on June 20. Speaking to scores of world leaders, Ban described the agreement as “a foundation that future generations can build on.”

The agreement was reached after months of negotiations that were slowed by disagreements among governments distracted by world economic problems, acknowledged conference leader Sha Zukang. But, Sha continued, “If this action is implemented, with follow-up measures taken, it will indeed make a tremendous difference in generating positive global change.”

Environmental and social activist groups criticized the agreement as being too weak to address the crucial problems the world faces.

The International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), a global industry organization, took a measured view of the accord. “We welcome the movement toward developing a green economy,” ICCA tells C&EN, “but the proof will be in the implementation.”

A section of the new agreement addresses commercial chemicals. “We are deeply concerned that many countries, in particular least developed countries, lack the capacity for sound management of chemicals and waste throughout their life cycle,” the group says.

The agreement calls for strengthening a 2006 international accord on managing chemicals, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). This deal established a blueprint that countries can use to establish regulatory systems for chemicals. Environmental activists and ICCA had sought a commitment from governments at the Rio conference to strengthen SAICM.

In addition, the Rio agreement commits governments to recycling materials and to requiring environmentally sound management of waste. It also specifically notes the challenges posed by electronic waste and plastics, the International POPs Elimination Network tells C&EN. This coalition of environmental and health groups focuses on persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

As part of the Rio agreement, governments also backed a gradual global phasedown in the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Widely used as refrigerants, these substances are alternatives for chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. HFCs do not harm stratospheric ozone, but they are potent greenhouse gases.

In the week leading up to the conference, negotiators inside a heavily guarded convention center worked long hours to finish the Rio agreement. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people participated in hundreds of organized events on sustainability issues. Some 45,000 people attended the official conference.

Companies from around the world also met in the days leading up to the conference to showcase the ways they are incorporating sustainability into their operations, products, and value chains. As part of their endorsement of the conference, more than 200 businesses, including chemical manufacturers, consumer product makers, and pharmaceutical firms, pledged publicly to the UN that they would take specific actions to shift the world to a more sustainable path.

Furthermore, the UN Environment Programme announced a series of joint initiatives related to sustainability, including greener government procurement and industry efforts to use water more efficiently.


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