Written By Rod Oram, Rod’s Rio Blog # 1, Friday 15th June:
The last 20 years…and the task ahead
In some ways, at least for people over say 40, 1992 seems like yesterday. Yet the world, and human fortunes, have changed dramatically since that year when Rio de Janeiro hosted the first Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.
It was a defining moment. At last all the pressures humankind was putting on the planet came into sharp focus. At the summit, world leaders set some bold goals for their countries to do better.
In essence, economic life has improved for many people, lifting 100s of millions of them from poverty and hunger. But it has come at a high price – the rapid rise of resource use and accelerating environmental degradation
As people gather in Rio at the next Earth Summit to try to agree ways to make human development sustainable, this is an abridged version of the UN’s assessment of the progress – and not – that we’ve made in the 20 years since the first Earth Summit:
At the 1992 Earth Summit representatives from 178 countries, including 108 world leaders, forged a bold new vision for development — sustainable development. The vision, embodied in Agenda 21 and the Rio Principles, marked a major shift, calling for the full integration of environmental, social and economic dimensions into development planning.
There has been significant progress since the Earth Summit, but the track record for implementing Agenda 21 and sustainable development is decidedly mixed. In many ways, the idea of sustainability has gained acceptance across broad swathes of the public.
But sustainability has often been associated with the environment, without proper consideration for economic or social development.
According to the 2012 Human Development Report, people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have more access to goods and services.
But there are major regional differences, and also stark inequalities within countries. And while more people are living better since the Earth Summit, the natural world that underpins this prosperity has continued to be degraded.
At Rio+20, government, business and civil society leaders will seek ways to ensure a sustainable future.
The following are some of the major developments since the Earth Summit — some positive, some not.
In the 1992 Rio Declaration, developed countries acknowledged their responsibility in the global pursuit of sustainable development. At the 1992 Earth Summit, it was estimated that over US$600bn a year, through the year 2000, would be needed in developing countries to carry out activities listed in Agenda 21 to achieve sustainable development.
Out of the US$600bn, it was noted in the Agenda 21 text, “about US$125bn in grant or concessional terms from the international community” was needed. At the time, US$125bn was roughly equal to 0.7% of the combined gross national income (GNI) of donor countries.
At the UN in 1970, countries agreed to the 0.7% target to be dedicated to official development assistance (ODA), or foreign aid, which has been met by only a handful of developed countries.
- Major efforts have been undertaken through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — eight targeted development goals designed to advance progress in reducing extreme poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease by 2015.
- In every region of the developing world, the percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day declined, but over a billion people still live in poverty.
- Since 1992, average life expectancy has increased by three and a half years.
- Today, 27% of the world’s population lives in absolute poverty, down from 46% in 1990.
- Progress on meeting the MDGs has been very uneven across regions, with large areas in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia unlikely to achieve the Goals.
- Biodiversity has declined by 12% at the global level.
- Environmentally protected areas have increased worldwide by 42%, yet only 13% of the world’s land surface, 7% of its coastal waters and 1.4% of its oceans are protected.
- Some 20 to 30% of species assessed may be at risk of extinction from climate change impacts before 2100 if increases in global mean temperatures exceed 2-3 °C.
- Urban population has grown by 45% since 1992, and in the coming decades, 95% of the world’s urban population growth will take place in developing countries.
- About one third of the world urban population lives in slum conditions.
- There were 23 megacities with at least 10 million people in 2011; up from 10 in 1992, and by 2025, the number is expected to reach 37.
- The MDG target of significantly improving the lives of at least 100m slum dwellers has been achieved
Water and sanitation:
- There has been progress in improving and expanding access to freshwater. But due to poor infrastructure and mismanagement, every year about 2m people, mostly children, die from diseases associated with inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene.
- 89% of the world’s population now uses improved drinking water sources, and the MDG target for 2015 has been met—but 783m people are still without access to safe drinking water.
- Only 63% of people worldwide now have access to improved sanitation, a figure projected to increase to only 67% by 2015.
- Food production has continued to rise steadily at a pace exceeding population growth, yet 925m people remain hungry.
- More than 12m hectares of productive land are lost due to desertification every year, the equivalent of losing an area the size of South Africa every decade. Over the next 25 years land degradation could reduce global food production by as much as 12% leading to a 30% increase in world food prices.
- Primary forest area decreased by 300m ha since 1990.
- About 85% of all fish stocks in the oceans are now overexploited, depleted, recovering or fully depleted.
- Sea levels have risen at an average rate of about 2.5 mm per year since 1992.
- Around 25% of the world’s C02 emissions are being absorbed into the seas and oceans, where they are converted to carbonic acid, threatening coral reefs and other marine life.
- The global use of natural resources rose by over 40% from 1992 to 2005. Demand for cement rose by more than 170%, for plastics by 130% and for steel by more than 100%.
- One in five people—1.4bn people—still lack access to modern electricity; 3bn people rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal wastes for cooking and heating.
- Energy is the dominant contributor to climate change, accounting for around 60% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Renewable energy sources (including biomass) currently account for only 13% of the global energy supply.
- Carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 38% since 1990.
- The 10 hottest years ever measured have all occurred since 1998.
New Zealand’s performance since 1992:
In May, World Wildlife Fund NZ published a report on NZ’s environmental performance since the 1992 Earth Summit. Its main findings included:
- Increased pollution in our lakes and rivers, including 43% of monitored lakes in NZ now classed as polluted and an estimated 18,000-34,000 people annually catching waterborne diseases.
- More than 60% of native freshwater fish as well as the only freshwater crayfish and mussel species are now threatened with extinction.
- Seven of New Zealand’s ten official ‘indicator species’ for measuring biodiversity status are threatened. The Kokako, for example, has suffered a 90% contraction in its range since the 1970s.
- Iconic species such as Maui’s dolphins and NZ sea lions are listed as ‘nationally critical’. Only an estimated 55 Maui’s over the age of one year remain and NZ sea lion pup numbers have halved over the past 12 years at their main breeding area in the Auckland Islands.
- Almost two-thirds of New Zealand’s seabird species are listed as threatened with extinction. The main threats to seabirds are predation by introduced mammals, fishing methods and human disturbance.
- New Zealand’s gross greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 20% since 1992, due to increased pollution from energy, transport, agriculture and industry sectors. Even with our weakened Emissions Trading Scheme, emissions are projected to continue to rise.