Success for People & the Planet at Rio+20

Mar 21st, 2012 | By | Category: Rio+20 Earth Summit

By Suzanne York,, March 21, 2012


Photo courtesy of Andries3:

The official focus of the upcoming United Nations “Earth Summit”, aka Rio+20, will be on the green economy and solidifying a sustainable development framework. This past January, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon laid out five imperatives of an action plan to “build the future we want.” These are sustainable development; preventing and mitigating conflicts, human rights abuses and the impacts of natural disasters; building a safer and more secure world; supporting countries in transition; and working to engage the talents of women and young people.

Certainly all laudable actions. But if there is to be any success at the Rio+20 summit, there are some other imperatives not included in the Secretary-General’s list that are necessary to create a healthy future for people and the planet.

The components of success at Rio+20:

Address Population Growth

Yes, it’s still an issue. While the global rate of population growth has slowed, there are still 80 million people added every year. Africa’s total population is predicted to increase to 2.2 billion by 2050. Or consider Pakistan, currently the world’s sixth most populated country. The United Nations Population Fund projects that between now and 2050 Pakistan could see a population increase from 175 million people to 335 million. Globally, there could be a total of 9.4 billion people by 2050. If the world takes action in Rio and addresses the impacts of population growth, it could keep that number down to 8 billion people.

Understanding the links between population, gender inequalities, family planning, and rates of consumption have been taken up in years past but seem to have fallen off the global agenda and now must be raised again. For the planet’s sake, population growth needs to be on the agenda.

Empower Women

A true sustainable development framework is one that puts women’s needs front and center. Solutions include promoting women’s reproductive health, enabling access to contraception, increasing girls’ education, and building sustainable livelihoods. These are the keys to promoting sustainable development, mitigating our impacts on the planet which sustains us, and building a safer and more secure world.

Recognizing and improving rights of women and girls will bring many benefits, and are long overdue. Beyond access to health and education, gender inequalities such as land rights – women own less than 15 percent of land worldwide – must be part of the sustainable development equation. According to UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, “Laws that prevent women from inheriting property, laws that restrict women’s freedom, and laws that undermine women’s rights are all laws that must be repealed.” For Rio+20, she said “We absolutely must empower women to create the future we want.”

Alternatives to Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

There is a growing concern on the consequences of continued economic growth in a world of shrinking and finite resources, as well as the impact of such rampant growth on quality of life. Conventional economic wisdom holds that global growth can continue forever, yet the reality of resource constraints is challenging this economic mantra. Rio+20 should address the need to create and promote more efficient indicators of human and environmental well-being worldwide, as it addresses reducing poverty and inequality. There currently exist viable alternative measures of economic performance, including the Genuine Progress Indicator (which measures how well citizens are doing both economically and socially) and the Happy Planet Index (a composite of three measures – life expectancy at birth, life satisfaction, and ecological footprint).

Key to all of this is over-consumption. Historically a small portion of the planet – the rich, developed countries – have contributed the most to rising greenhouse gas emissions and depletion of resources around the globe. And certainly as developing countries grow, prosper, and move into the middle-class, they want the things that we in the developed world want and have.

Connie Hedegaard, EU commissioner for Climate Action, has called for reassessing the idea of growth. In a recent speech she said “Growth in itself is neither our enemy, nor our problem. It is the way we have grown, and the way we continue to grow that is our common challenge. Growth, as we know it, will lead to incomprehensible problems in the future, not least due to the stress we cause to our ecosystems, our climate, and other natural resources, like for example water.” She has urged taking up this issue at Rio+20.

Rights of Nature Paradigm

Given the reality of climate change, finite resources and a planet already extended beyond its carrying capacity, the urgency of finding sustainable solutions is upon us now. Successfully addressing global problems will require a change in our way of looking at the world. One paradigm-shifting concept is that of recognizing rights of nature.

What exactly, does this mean? Rather than treating nature as property under the law (as women and slaves once were), rights of nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. Simply put, it is seeing the natural world as something other than a resource for human exploitation, and that humans are part of nature, not separate. Ecuador and Bolivia have included rights of nature in their constitutions, recognizing the legal right of ecosystems to exist.

This will obviously require a major shift in thinking for many people, but we need something other than “business as usual” if we wish to sustain life on this planet.

This list is not inclusive, but these are key components. The answer isn’t to give up our 21st century lifestyles, but to live within our means and the planet’s means. Society should act together and move past unsustainable levels of economic growth, focus on the well-being of all, and recognize resource limits. The best way to achieve this is to enhance the rights of women, positively address population growth, reduce unsustainable levels of consumption, and consider new concepts that protect people, nature, and the earth that we share. That’s how we build the future we want.






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