19 years ago more heads of states than ever came together in Rio de Janeiro for what was termed the Earth Summit. They agreed on a few sensible things, such as that "the right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations" or that "states shall enact effective environmental legislation" (see here). The language is typical of bureaucrats. But the message is pretty good.
Exactly one year from today, governments will meet in Rio again to mark the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit. Few heads of states that were present in 1992 will attend when governments meet from June 4th to 6th 2012 for Rio+20. And many will be happy not to be there. That way, they can avoid admitting that they utterly failed to deliver what they promised. In 1992, for example, governments agreed the UN Climate Convention, which states that the: "ultimate objective of the Convention ... is to achieve ... stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". If they had meant it, of course, we would have stopped the relentless rise in climate damaging emissions long ago. Instead, as you probably read, 2010 was the worst year ever in terms of humanity´s impact on the fragile climate we depend on.
There was plenty wrong with what governments agreed in detail in 1992. They endorsed nuclear power, for example. Still, 1992, for those of us old enough to remember it, often seems like the proverbial good old days. At least then, unlike in Copenhagen in 2009, governments could agree. At least then, we could be hopeful that the Earth Summit would be truly a turn around moment. Shortly after the end of the Cold War, many believed that governments would finally be ready to move the billions that they spent on arms during the Cold War on solving the real problems of the world: poverty, disease, environmental destruction. That did not happen. Today, we still spend around 1600 billions on arms every year. So will "Rio+20" be worth anything? Will it deliver for people and the planet?
So far, the official preparations do not give much ground for hope. Governments are arguing over terms like the "green economy" rather than getting on with what is needed, such as delivering an energy revolution or ending deforstation. In Brazil, the host nation, deforestation is rising and forest protections are under threat rather than being extended. President Dilma Roussef needs to act to protect the integrity of Brazil´s forst code (as my colleague Paulo Adario explains eloquently here). Otherwise, with brutal irony, the current increase in deforestation will continue, just as the world descends on Rio for another Earth Summit.
No question, there is plenty the Earth Summit 2012 could - and should - achieve. We have our demands ready (see here for a short summary and here for a longer statement). Politics being politics, though, June 2012 is, realitically, not a great moment for major advances to be made. While one significant change since 1992 is that powers such as China, Brazil, India or South Africa - to name just a few - are much more powerful, it´s still difficult to make global progress on fundamental matters such as a fair and green economy without the United States. In June 2012, however, the United States will be busy with the looming presidential election. Obama - who has failed to lead on climate change so far at the global level - will be loath to agree to anything that his Republican opponents may criticize in the election, let alone something progressive. That´s sad, wrong and should be different. But it´s likely how things will be.
But likely does not mean certain, of course. Who would have thought one year ago, that we would see a conservative government in Germany abandon nuclear power, for example? If we can learn anything from the Fukushima tragedy, it is that politics is never linear, and never entirely predictable. There are moments when real change is possible.
And there are some concrete steps that could be agreed upon at Rio. The vast high seas, for example, could finally get the legal protection they deserve (a small step in that direction was taken in New York this week). Governments could create a true global institution that can protect the environment and enforce environmental rules. Governments could commit to zero deforstation by 2020 - with the host Brazil reversing the current trends and leading the way.
May be in June 2012 the global winds of change will be such, that global steps forward for the environment and people will be possible. It´s not exactly likely. But it´s worth fighting for. We at Greenpeace will be ready to hold governments accountable for their failures, to propose sensible ways forward and to push for the best deal possible for people and the planet. As Bob Hunter, one of Greenpeace´s founders, was fond of saying: "Big change looks impossible when you start, and inevitable when you finish." Such may it soon be with the energy revolution, zero deforestation and protected high seas.