Within the next week, government representatives from around the world including UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and the environment secretary Caroline Spelman will meet in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the ‘Rio+20′ Summit 20 years on from the original Rio ‘Earth Summit in 1992.
That event set the world on track for sustainability, uniting development and environment efforts to pursue ‘sustainable development – “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In the words of the current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon: “Sustainable development is the imperative of the 21st century.”
The 1992 Rio Earth Summit was a key moment with several major achievements. These were, firstly, The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development –a set of principles establishing key concepts such as the primacy of poverty eradication, the, the ‘polluter pays’ principle, and, the precautionary approach.
Secondly, Agenda 21 – an ambitious programme of action for sustainable development worldwide. This included an ambition to promote “sustainable agriculture and rural development” – the objective of which was “…to increase food production in a sustainable way and enhance food security.
In Bristol we had an Agenda 21 programme as result of this - now represented by the city’s green and Fairtrade initiatives.
Others were the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCB) and The Statement of Forest Principles – calling on all countries to co-operate to “green the world” through reforestation and forest conservation.
And finally, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was a legally-binding instrument which set the objective of avoiding “dangerous climate change”. This set the scene for agreement of the Kyoto Protocol, in 1997, which for the first time introduced targets and timetables for the reduction of greenhouse gas pollution.
Since then there have been many positive developments or ‘Reason’s to be Cheerful’, with many key conservation successes over the past 20 years. Rio is a key moment in this timeline of environmental awareness and action. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit was truly game changing and revealed the injustice in the way we live in industrialised countries. Since 1992, progress towards greater food equity, sustainability, and resilience in the face of shocks has stalled. The challenge set then – to provide prosperity for all without exceeding ecological limits – is even more urgent today.
The Rio+20 Summit faces huge challenges. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2011, concluded: “Over the last quarter of a century, the world economy has quadrupled… in contrast 60% of the world’s major ecosystem goods and services that underpin livelihoods have been degraded or used unsustainably. Global demand for natural resources has doubled since 1996 and that is now 50% higher than the regenerative capacity of the planet. According to the most recent Living Planet report, the world’s environment has continued to deteriorate in the past 20 years.”
The Rio report card does not make cheerful reading: carbon emissions have increased 40% in the past 20 years while global mean temperature increased by 0.4°C between 1992 and 2010. Eighteen out of the last 21 years feature among the 20 warmest years on record since (reliable) recording of temperature started in 1880. Biodiversity loss is accelerating and one in six people remain undernourished. Global incomes and wealth are extremely unequally distributed, both within countries and between them – the richest 10% of people on the planet hold 57% of global income, while the poorest 20% have less than 2%.
Around 50% of global carbon emissions are produced by just 11% of the population. Without a new path of development and a change in consumption patterns, the pressure on ecosystems and poor communities is set to intensify in the future as the global population is projected to rise from the current 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050.
A key strand in all is something which touches us all every day – the food we all need to live. The world still produces more than enough food to feed everyone, but there are more hungry people today than in 1992. Twenty years ago, hunger was on a slow but steady decline, with 848 million poor people under-nourished in 1990-92. Since the mid 1990s, the number of people suffering from hunger began to rise again, peaking at just over one billion following the 2008 food price crisis.
Agriculture is also most important driver of the change in global land use, which in turn is generally recognised as a major cause of extinction of animal and plant species. Added to nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, on-going conversion of land for food, fuel and fibre continues to reduce the overall sustainability of food production: nearly a third of tropical species and ecosystems have been lost since 1992.
While the area cultivated using more sustainable ecological agriculture practices has more than doubled since 1999, it remains insignificant by comparison with industrial, high-impact agricultural methods. The area dedicated to just three crops – oil palm, soybeans, and sugar cane – grew by nearly 75% between 1992 and 2009.
At Rio+20 governments must demonstrate their resolve to get back on track. Between 1983 and 2006, development assistance to agriculture in developing countries fell steadily.
But one ‘reason one to cheerful’ is that the solutions are there. Meeting the calorie needs of every person living with hunger would take less than 3% of today’s global food supply. Just $3-7 billion (compare that to recent $100bn bank bail-outs!) would be enough to train smallholder producers worldwide in environmentally friendly, agro-ecological practices. This would enable fair and sustainable methods of increasing global food production and support the crucial role of smallholder farmers and co-operatives who feed nearly a third of humanity.
Increased investment in sustainable smallholder agriculture to lift farmers, many of whom are women, out of poverty is urgently needed.Oxfam has been working with the Co-operative movement on ‘Team Betty’ to promote the value of women farmers. At Rio+20 Oxfam will be calling on attending leaders to agree concrete actions to deliver a sustainable, resilient and equitable food system for all by ensuring the poorest have access to their fair share of land, water, carbon and other limited resources.
Oxfam will also be championing a single set of ‘global development goals’ to guide development efforts of all countries in the post-2015 period that brings together environmental and social themes. It is vital that we encourage our MPs and government to act.
So, if you read this, do make your own ‘Rio Connection’ by asking your MP to sign the Rio Declaration and commit to a sustainable future where everyone has enough to eat and make RIO+20 another milestone in creating a sustainable 21st century.