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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bio-party in Rio badly timed

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — It is all too easy to assume that this meeting is just an excuse for a big party. Everybody loves to party, especially in Rio de Janeiro, city of carnival and samba, sun and stunning beaches with hardly clad beautiful bronzed bodies. Come and enjoy.

More than 130 world leaders and a crowd of 50,000 supporters will be there Wednesday through Friday for what is billed as the biggest-ever international conference. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has called the gathering "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make real progress toward a sustainable economy." He is out of touch with the sad reality of this fragile planet.

The meeting is Rio+20 — the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development — in memory of the Earth Summit of 1992.

Let's call it the Green Summit, something that might excite the popular imagination. There is an urgent need to excite the imagination: The Rio Green Summit deals with the most vital matters facing mankind, including the environment, climate change, food, water and energy supplies.

Earth is suffering. About 900 million people don't get enough food to eat each day; a billion don't have access to safe drinking water; 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation; 1.6 billion live without electricity. At the other end of the scale, the income of the 500 richest people is the same as that of the poorest 416 million.

Greedy governments and their powerful corporate allies are like ravenous locusts stripping the world of precious resources. The World Wildlife Fund's 2012 Living Planet Report said human beings are gobbling up the world's resources faster than they can replace them. In 2008, the latest year for which data is available, human beings outstripped Earth's biocapacity by 50 percent. Biocapacity is the amount of renewable resources, land and waste absorption — such as sinks for carbon dioxide — that Earth can provide.

A U.S. intelligence assessment of water security concludes that by 2030 "annual global water requirements" will exceed "current sustainable water supplies" by 40 percent. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of rich industrial countries, said this month that "on current trends, by 2050 there could be 4 billion people living in water-stressed areas; the world will use 80 percent more energy, most of it based on fossil fuels, increasing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050 and temperatures by up to 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century."

It would be a dangerously hot greenhouse world. Most climate scientists say that anything higher than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would be too uncomfortable for human beings.

A group of scientists from three continents claim in the journal Nature that the world is on the brink of a dangerous tipping point that could threaten the extinction of mankind.

"The data suggests ... a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations," stated lead author Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California in Berkeley.

One problem of course with these predictions is that they are full of "could," "might", "likely" and "probably", all of which give vested interests the excuse to dig deeper to plunder the world's resources because there is no sure proof of disaster.

Is green growth that respects and renews the environment the answer?

Promoters of the cause of environmentally friendly economic policies are no longer limited to rather loony greenies. The U.N. Environment Program and OECD have both published reports forecasting that green investments would have positive impacts on employment, resources, emissions and the environment.

Barbara Unmuessing, president of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, wrote this month: "Neither governments nor industries really accept the fact that Earth's resources are limited and that climate change is happening fast. Nor do they challenge unabated growth as the foremost economic objective."

Rio+20 is wretchedly timed, with eurozone leaders squabbling, President Barack Obama fighting for his political life, a changing of the political guard due in China and other important countries, and constant distractions — from slaughter in Syria to grim economic news.

A giant jamboree like Rio is the least effective way to reach any agreement on involved and intricate interlocked issues with so many people fighting to be heard and with conflicting views even on questions like the definition of a green economy. At best, these international conferences are celebratory parties where leaders put their ceremonial seals on a deal after months of backroom argument.

In Rio, it is proving difficult to whittle down thousands of position papers and drafts into a mealy-mouthed document that everyone can agree on but which will do little to change anything.

Time is running out. The original Rio summit took five years to lead to the Kyoto Protocol, which was doomed from the start, with the U.S. failing to ratify its agreed deal. After that things have gone from bad to worse, with catastrophe in Copenhagen over attempts to find a successor to Kyoto and disaster in Durban.

Is the planet doomed?

It's hard to be optimistic. One saving grace might be if a courageous leader inaugurated a green-growth program to try to reduce the carbon footprint in his or her territory, aggressively adopt research and development for new green technologies, and tackle entrenched problems to blaze a trail for the rest of the world.

The obvious places to start would be a very poor place — like Bangladesh, which has bravely climbed from the "eternal basket case" status that Henry Kissinger awarded it — or a rich country that is on a plateau, like Japan, and that could set an example for future green living.

If I had bet on the political vision, I would recommend Bangladesh, but would the rest of the world fund research and development and new technology while helping Bangladesh simultaneously tackle deep problems of education, safe water and sanitation for the masses?

Japan had a chance after last year's triple disasters crippled Fukushima and its nuclear plants, but it has shown neither vision nor political leadership. Its stubborn leaders have turned their backs on any kind of reforms.

A big metropolitan city could be the paradigm. How about Hong Kong? Could new chief executive CY Leung be the progenitor of a green Hong Kong that would stand in stark contrast to despoiling, polluted Big Mother China?

Optimists had hoped that Mayor Toru Hashimoto would use his imagination to make Osaka a green example to Japan and the world. Especially given the presence of world-beating electronics and green technology companies, Hashimoto would have a platform to launch a crusade for growth, high-quality living and a diminished carbon footprint. Instead, his ambitions seem to be limited to making sure that teachers sing the national anthem and keeping Osaka safe from tattoos.

Kevin Rafferty, editor in chief of PlainWords Media, is author of a 2008 book on the challenges of climate change.

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