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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Population growth, reduced poverty and increased demand for food and utilities.
The 26% growth of the world’s population during the 20 years between Eco-92 and the Rio+20 conferences has brought positive, but also challenging consequences for the planet.
Seven million people worldwide have risen out of poverty and joined the middle class during the past two decades, according to United Nations (UN) estimates.
However, improvements in living conditions have also increased the demand for food.
An average person consumes 43 kilograms (94.8 pounds) of meat annually, compared with 34 kilograms (74.9 pounds) in 1992, according to the UN.
There has also been a rise in the consumption of water, electricity and a variety of raw materials, making it difficult for countries to reach a sustainable balance between supply and demand.
Yet, UN statistics show progress has been made regarding balancing the needs of man and nature’s ability to placate those demands.
Energy production, for example, has increased by 66%. The production of foodstuffs, thanks to the help of fertilizers, grew 45% in the past 20 years.
“There was an improvement in people’s living standards, but there was also a reproduction of consumption patterns that challenge this progress, resulting in the persistence of many inequalities,” says Fabio Feldmann, an environmental consultant and former executive secretary of the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change. “Changing consumption patterns is the major challenge.”
The current model of consumption is based on a carbon-intensive system of production, which is the main culprit behind global warming.
Sources of renewable energy exist throughout the world, but the use of fossil fuels is still predominant at factories.
The preference for oil, coal or gas is one of the factors responsible for the 36% increase in CO2 emissions since 1992, according to data compiled by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
The pace of this growth is faster in developing countries – up 64% since 1992 – compared to 8% in developed countries during the same period.
The increase in deforestation and grazing, two important sources of wealth for emerging nations, partially explains this disparity, experts say.
But UN figures also show a dark side to the improved living standards of people in developing countries.
While per capita gross domestic product (GDP) increased 39% in developed countries during the past 20 years – it is now about US$38,800 annually – it increased 80% to US$5,300 in developing countries, according to the UNEP.
“This shows how complex the negotiation of international treaties will be at Rio+20,” says Branca Americano, advisor to the president of the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development, referring to the discussions among more than 100 heads of state on June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro. “Developing countries also need to broaden their focus and accept responsibility for CO2 emissions.”
Current context hinders consensus
The current geopolitical context, marked by the global economic crisis and threat of terrorism, further complicates the search for a global consensus regarding a new model of consumption, analysts say.
In 1992, there was intense optimism. The Berlin Wall had recently fallen and the global economy was prospering.
Eco-92 closed a round of negotiations that began in the 1970s, when the UN held its first conference to discuss environmental issues, in Stockholm, Sweden, Americano adds.
“Rio+20, on the other hand, will open a new round of negotiations. The result of the summit will depend on the daringness of the leaders,” Americano says.
It is expected that during the three days of meetings that are to begin on June 20, the heads of state will establish targets for the transition from a traditional economy to a green economy that promotes the sustainable development of the planet and the eradication of poverty.
The lack of tangible goals and monitoring mechanisms prevented many of the initiatives from Eco-92 from producing any effect, Feldmann adds.
Three important agreements – on Climate Change, Desertification and Biological Diversity –were signed or proposed in 1992.
The document dealing with climate change established annual meetings (Conferences of the Parties, or COPs), and gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 2020 so the planet’s temperature does not increase by more than two degrees Celsius.
An increase of two degrees Celsius is seen by scientists as the maximum that nature could sustain without major upheavals.
But CO2 emissions continue to rise.
The document on desertification also stalled, says Americano, pointing out it is a geographically restricted problem that’s specifically found in Africa and the Brazilian Northeast.
The Agreement on Biological Diversity made progress in 2010, when a meeting in Nagoya, Japan, stipulated rules for accessing genetic resources. However, experts agree it is still too early to determine whether these rules will be enforced.
For Rio+20 to be accepted by the global community, Americano and Feldmann say institutions such as the UN must be strengthened, and countries must truly engage in the transition to a green economy, complete with low-carbon consumption and rational use of natural resources.