Spotlight on Rio+20: What’s Happened Since 1992?

By: Isabella Scott

The meeting billed as the follow-up to the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development is coming to Rio de Janeiro this June. The 1992 meeting was hailed as one of the best attempts by the global community to change the course of human development to a model that would be equitable and sustainable. 178 countries, most represented by their heads of government, unanimously agreed to adopt Agenda 21, a blueprint for sustainable development for the world, heading into the 21st century. The June 2012 summit is labeled Rio+20, and is supposed to assess how far the world has traveled on the road mapped out 20 years ago and to re-calibrate the goals and the action plans as needed.

In order to prepare the agenda for the Rio+20 meeting, the UN had commissioned three reports on the progress of implementation of the Rio principles. These reports have just been published and make for very dismal reading. On the major goals set out in Rio in 1992, the progress has been very poor.

Disparate resource usage

The review finds, unsurprisingly, that the 20 percent of world population living in North America, the European Union and Japan, still consumes 80 percent of the world’s raw material and energy resources. North America consumes 90 kg of raw material per day and the European Union 45 kg per day, when the whole of the African continent only consumes 10 kg per day. The demand growth from the densely populated regions of China and India, not foreseen at the 1992 meeting, makes the situation for Africa even worse.

In the 20 years since Rio 1992, the advanced economies have, indeed, developed new processes and technologies to reduce raw material and energy usage in many sectors of manufactured products. These new processes and technologies have not been transferred to the emerging industries in China or India or the other emerging economies. The disparity is even wider in the small and medium scale industries in these emerging economies as they have even less exposure to global technology trends than the larger industries.

The biggest single area of failure in sustainable development remains the power generation industry. The world continues to depend on fossil fuels with over 53 percent of power generation coming from petroleum liquid fuels or natural gas and another 27 percent from coal. Hydro power accounts only for 2.3 percent and solar and wind, a minuscule 0.8 percent.

Poverty alleviation

The Rio 1992 summit rightly concluded that sustainable development can happen only if global poverty levels are dramatically reduced. At that meeting, the nations agreed that poverty alleviation was the responsibility of all countries, not just the poor countries. On poverty alleviation measures, the report card is particularly dismal.

The Overseas Development Assistance funds actually disbursed by the advanced economies fall well short of the commitments they made. The stated reasons are that the programs for which money is allocated run behind schedule and institutional corruption squanders the funds disbursed. While these reasons are valid to some extent, slowing aid disbursal is also due to the economic contraction in the advanced economies. Since this contraction appears set to continue, the 2012 summit may not find any solution to this problem.

Access to markets

One of the commitments the global nations agreed to at the Rio 1992 summit was that unfettered access to markets was a key policy measure to reduce global income disparities. Many developing countries around the world have dismantled tariff barriers and import quotas in line with the spirit of the Rio 1992 agreement. The advanced economies, however, continue to protect their domestic agriculture production with subsidies and non-tariff restrictions like quality certification, tests for pesticide contamination and other restrictive measures. The total subsidy to agriculture in 2010 in the three major regions of North America, the European Union and Japan amounted to $376 billion. This money transferred to the poorest of the agrarian economies could have made a dramatic difference in those countries.

Urbanization in poorer countries leads to increased poverty

One astounding fact from the UN studies is that on average, 115,000 people move each day from the rural areas of the poorer countries to their cities. This migration results in an apparent increase in income for the migrants but actually leads to increased poverty. The work availability is uncertain, the living conditions in urban slums are unsanitary, the drinking water is more contaminated and there are increased health risks. The slum clusters are also more prone to fire, flooding and other natural disasters.

The measures outlined in the Rio 1992 declaration to check migration to cities by increased support to agriculture, development of rural industry, availability of electricity, better education and health care and the like have remained largely unimplemented.

It remains to be seen if the Rio 2102 summit delivers any new approaches to these endemic problems. If not it would become another pointless global summit that ends as a collection of speeches made and papers read that makes no difference to the lives of the poor in the world.

About the author: Isabella is a blogger by profession. She loves writing and reading about technology and luxury, most recently bath rugs and genetically modified foods.

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