The Environmental Pillar of Social Partnership welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the development of an understanding of Ireland’s contribution to the Rio +20 Conference on sustainable development. The major outcomes of the Rio Conference in 1992 “The Earth Summit” included the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, and the Sustainable Forest Principles.
For the first time at international level,it was agreed that economic development must incorporate principles like environmental sustainability, public participation, human rights and poverty reduction. The outcomes of the Earth Summit made it clear that protection of the environment was essential for the well-being of societies and the economic systems that they create. The fundamental concept of sustainable development has evolved since and is best described by means of the “Russian doll model”. This model shows human society evolving from and entirely reliant on the environment from whence it came. It also shows the economic systems that were created by humanity as a subset of human society and one that can be and has been changed to suit the needs of the time.
In recent developments, a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth has been drafted and the Ecuadorean Constitution (2008) and Bolivia’s Law of the Rights Of Mother Earth (2011) both now recognise the Rights of Nature. “in an interdependent living community it is not possible to recognize the rights of only human beings without causing an imbalance within Mother Earth.”
Some progress has been made since 1992 including through the elaboration of regional, national and local sustainable development strategies, the adoption of a binding agreement on Climate Change, and the ratification of the Aarhus Convention on environmental democracy by 44 states in the UNECE region. In developing countries, the Rio Declaration allowed for the incorporation of Human Development consideration and greatly influenced the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) agenda. However wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of the population, undermining the sense of solidarity necessary for concerted efforts to resolve the global crises of poverty, environmental degradation and economic chaos.
Overall, though, 20 years on, tangible change has been negligible as evidenced by the collection of global crises today: crises in democracy, global economics and finance, climate change, food security etc. While much has been achieved through the MDGs, sadly over 1 billion people continue to live in absolute poverty worldwide while the international framework which is expected to help them is fragmented and incoherent. Agenda 21 has largely been paid only lip service, and the sustainable forest principles are still a long way from becoming reality.
Even though the agenda for the Rio +20 conference is somewhat restrictive and lacking in vision, the 20th anniversary still represents a major opportunity for states to re-commit to and prioritise the fulfilment of the principles which underpin the Rio Declaration and to agree and implement a programme which moves humanity forward in that direction.
However, political will to fulfil commitments has waned since 1992 and the institutional framework for making real progress on sustainable development is inadequate. For this to change, the involvement of major groups and stakeholders will be critical in the preparatory process and in the conference itself, as civil society will play a central role in gathering support and momentum for dealing with the global challenges discussed there.
Civil society will also bring knowledge, expertise and resources as well as advocacy skills that will promote the environmental and developmental priorities and obligations, ensuring the following outcomes as the absolute minimum required to tackle the many crises facing humanity and nature:
1.1 an explicit expression of the need for a seismic shift in the prevailing economic model to one based on the understanding of the limits to growth, together with an outline mechanism for moving towards a new model;
1.2 a reiteration of commitment to implement the principles of sustainable development contained in the Rio Declaration of 1992, together with timelines for action;
1.3 a clear statement that sustainable development will underpin the narrative for a “post Millennium Development Goals” framework;
1.4 a declaration of the rights of nature.