World leaders had barely concluded the G20 meeting in Mexico — where they tried to solve the eurozone debt crisis — before they had to move on to another attempt at saving the future of the world, as the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, took place in Rio de Janeiro.
Sustainable development is an ongoing concern. Since the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a diversity of concerns, such as the environment, ecology, food supply, education, poverty, gender equality, economic and social development, health and hygiene, and biodiversity have gradually taken center stage in the global debate.
Global warming has caused increasingly extreme weather patterns around the world in recent years, increasing the frequency of typhoons, droughts and floods. Seeing these changes, many former skeptics have been forced to admit that global warming is clearly having an impact on our living environment, and that the human race is the main culprit behind the phenomenon.
The 1992 UNCED summit in Rio de Janeiro put forward many suggestions and plans to be implemented by governments, civic organizations and individuals in the hope of solving a crisis that threatens all of humanity. The Kyoto Protocol was one of the suggestions proposed at the summit, and it was subsequently signed by many countries in an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many environmental activists have criticized the Kyoto Protocol and said it has had only a limited impact on global warming because its emissions standards are too low. In addition, the US did not sign the protocol, and many other big greenhouse gas emitters, such as China, India and Australia, were late joining the agreement, while Canada joined the treaty only to withdraw last year. These are factors that have greatly undermined the effect of a protocol that should have been universally implemented. Furthermore, many of the signatories have been unable to fulfill their commitments under the agreement, blaming budget restraints and economic development concerns. The result has been that the effect on global emission levels has fallen far short of original expectations.
The Kyoto Protocol may not have lived up to expectations, but it remains an important effort to counter global warming, although it is now about to expire. To extend the effort to diminish global warming beyond the expiry of the agreement, the Copenhagen Climate Conference was convened in 2009. Unfortunately, no consensus was reached because of conflicting national interests and environmental pressures, and there is reason not to be overly optimistic about follow-up talks.
Global warming is only one aspect of sustainable development. A look at the global effort toward energy efficiency and carbon emission reductions quickly reveals the daunting size and complexity of sustainable development. There are other issues that are just as big and complex, and great effort and sacrifice are necessary to achieve the smallest progress. If we relax for even a minute, progress will stall and may even regress beyond the point of no return.
Reflecting on our environment today, 20 years after the UNCED summit and considering the benchmarks set at the time, the global effort to push back the end of days has failed and perhaps we have moved a little bit closer to destruction. The main theme of the Rio+20 summit was “The Future We Want” — but what we want is not just an idealistic blueprint, but concrete promises and substantive action. If leaders around the world continue to leave things to chance and put their own interests first, our children will have no future.