Rio '92 was about science, Rio +20 is about consumption
- June 15, 2012 3:29 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks
When international delegates meet in Rio next week for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio +20, the atmosphere will be very different than it was 20 years ago for the first Rio Earth Summit.
Back then, environmental science set the agenda to prevent further damage to a changing planet. This time, the priorities are more about saving humanity from itself.
According to a statement released by the IAP, the global network of Science Academies, the two biggest issues that need to be addressed at Rio +20 are population and consumption.
Members of 105 science academies from around the world agree that our enormous numbers, beyond seven billion and growing fast, are burning up and eating up the planet at an unsustainable rate. Take care of those two issues and the environment will be taken care of as well.
Population is mostly an issue for developing countries, where fertility control and gender inequality are at the root of both rapid population growth and poverty. Those are touchy social issues that will be difficult, but not impossible, to overcome.
Consumption is mostly our responsibility on this side of the planet, where we continue to throw away far more than we use. Canadians use roughly 300 litres of water per person per day, which is far above the amount used in most other parts of the world. Do we really need to wash our driveways with a hose, or use millions of litres of water to get oil out of the ground?
Vehicles, even small ones, that use internal combustion engines are less that 20 per cent efficient, which means 80 per cent of the energy in gasoline is thrown away as waste heat that blows out the tailpipe and radiator.
Reducing that consumption does not mean we have to give up our modern lifestyle and go back to the pioneer days of log cabins and covered wagons. There are more efficient ways to turn wheels and keep ourselves warm.
Following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the scientific arguments for taking action on biodiversity and climate change were superseded by economic arguments, mostly from over-consuming developed countries, claiming that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels would bring down the world economy. It's interesting that when the global recession did happen, it was not for that reason at all, but rather, due to greed and corruption in the financial sector.
The argument that protecting the environment would cripple the economy was fueled largely by Big Business - oil, energy and pharmaceuticals - who lobbied politicians to oppose climate change agreements. That led to the failure of subsequent climate summits, especially in Durban, where developed countries, including Canada, opposed any binding limits on fossil fuel emissions.
In fact, climate change has been taken completely off the agenda at Rio +20.
The irony is that today, enlightened businesses have discovered that "going green" actually makes money. Anyone who has invested in more efficient buildings, cut down on heating bills and reduced water consumption has found the return on investment happens much sooner than expected.
It makes sense: efficiency is saving money.
At the same time, producers of green products are finding a growing market as consumers face higher and higher energy bills.
So, all the elements are there for a green economy: a willing market, available products and long-term savings. It is totally possible to reduce consumption without hurting the economy, and the environment gets a break along the way.
This is not to say that science should be ignored. Science is the eye on the planet.
Unfortunately, in this country, that eye is being closed, with the shutdown of the PEARL Arctic research station, closure of the Experimental Lakes Area, cutbacks to Environment Canada and the Canadian Space Agency, along with the muzzling of federal scientists when talking to the media.
In 1992, Canada was a leader in environmental research and policies. Canadian Maurice Strong, who, interestingly, was from the oil industry, was Secretary General of the UN Summit. Our country had already hosted two international conventions that led to agreements on reducing acid rain and ozone depletion. We were an example of environmental awareness and political will to do something about it.
Twenty years later, it seems like we are more of an opponent; some would even say an environmental embarrassment.
As Elizabeth May says on this week's Quirks & Quarks, Canada's current environmental record and policies are more like Rio Minus 40, rather than Rio Plus 20. Ms. May, now the leader of Canada's Green Party and a Member of Parliament, was an advisor to the Canadian delegation to the Rio Summit 20 years ago. She says there was an enormous sense of pride in being Canadian at that summit, but today, she says the world sees us as "a country that has gone rogue on our environmental commitments."
It doesn't have to be that way.
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