United Nations Earth Summit

Cecily McNeill2 August 2012 Some 600 multinational companies dominate 99 percent of the global economy. At the same time, just half of the world’s population has access to electricity. Archdiocesan…

Cecily McNeill
2 August 2012

United Nations Earth Summit Archdiocese of WellingtonSome 600 multinational companies dominate 99 percent of the global economy. At the same time, just half of the world’s population has access to electricity.

Archdiocesan justice coordinator Mary-Ann Greaney attended the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil from June 11 to 23, 2012, as part of a delegation of Presentation Sisters and Associates.

A stark contrast for Mary-Ann was the buzz of high-energy activity at the myriad events, activities and discussions within civil society and the People’s Summit and the low energy in the room where representatives of the heads of state were negotiating an agreement for the conference paper The Future We Want for June 20 to 22.

The conference heard that some $US17 trillion went into rescuing some banks during the 2008 banking crisis. This is enough to feed the world for 600 years.

Most of the bankers involved in the crisis retain their jobs, their high salaries and regularly collect substantial bonuses.

United Nations Earth Summit Archdiocese of WellingtonPut this alongside the fact that 800 million people are hungry at any given moment and notice how world leaders’ priorities are skewed.

Many speakers at the parallel events talked about solidarity. Liberation theology guru Leonardo Boff told a meeting that sustainability is based on solidarity and sharing.

‘There is no lack of food in the world. The problem is in the lack of access for the poor to obtain the food they need.’

Nations need to move away from a globalised culture based on markets, the bottom line, business and the economy to nature, energy and spirituality, all in balance. These add up to solidarity.

Developing societies will develop themselves according to their needs and the needs of their people as they renew their aspirations, said Boff.

A Caritas delegate said that a solidarity-based economy puts men and women at the centre and that protects distribution.

Mary-Ann was impressed with the tons of energy in the people who attended and the life and passion they contributed.

‘People were excited. They were talking about movements in which they were involved.

‘For example a young woman in a favela (Brazilian slum) was concerned about the lack of health services there. So she mobilised other young people and collected support for a petition and the government was forced to provide health services to the slum-dwellers.

The president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, called on the richest countries to compensate poor nations for damage caused by climate change.

Referring to the 2008 global banking crisis, he said, ‘Money is found to rescue banks; why don’t we put money in to rescue the environment.’ Ecuador has oil, he said.

United Nations Earth Summit Archdiocese of WellingtonThe country would like to leave it underground, but how will the poor people of Ecuador be compensated for not using this valuable commodity to trade? The 476 million barrels of oil are worth $US14 billion. ‘This isn’t charity,’ he said. ‘The money could be put in a UN trust fund to pay for research on a renewable, non-polluting energy source.’

Another speaker said communities that cut down trees in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest are compensated with funds to replant. But no money is given to communities which don’t fell their trees so there is no incentive to protect the forests.

Mary-Ann said she heard about a school where there are 3,000 college kids who decided they should be recycling the water. They put pressure on the school board about what they could do to be more sustainable. The school now uses recycled water in the toilets.

The art of negotiating
Representatives of heads of state were doing the negotiating.

They were allowed to go only so far before needing to consult their political masters.

Those negotiating on New Zealand’s behalf talked about the ‘games’ in which negotiators engaged. There might be only one measure that New Zealand wanted to be implemented but the negotiators put forward a longer list with which they could bargain.

This meant that they were seen to be ‘giving up’ the things that were not important to NZ and use them as bargaining chips to achieve the one they really wanted.

The words they preferred
The Presentations who attended the conference analysed the document The Future We Want, which writer Sr Rosemary Grundy said showed a weakness of commitment to action on the part of heads of State.

The word ‘recognise’ was the verb most used while ‘must’ was least present. The clause ‘take action’ was also rarely used along with ‘shall’ and ‘we will’ while ‘support’ and ‘promote’ were more popular.

Such generalities represent a massive step back from the so-called Zero Draft Document published in January 2012 based on inputs from a wide variety of stakeholders from around the world. So many ‘contentious’ issues in the Zero Draft Document were deleted from the final draft.

The ‘no-shows’
United Nations Earth Summit Archdiocese of WellingtonNotable by their absence were leaders from some of the developed countries – Barack Obama of the USA, David Cameron of the UK, German Chancellor Angela Merkle, Stephen Harper of Canada and New Zealand’s John Key.

Their absence was interpreted as an indicator of the low priority being given to the conference. Heads of France and China were there as was Australia’s Julia Gillard.

Since 1972 conferences have been convened at a variety of venues and conventions, treaties, agreements and protocols have been signed in an effort to address unsustainable practices and their impact on Planet Earth.

United Nations Earth Summit Archdiocese of WellingtonAt Rio in 1992 optimistic world leaders made strong commitments to ensure a sustainable future for all. Despite this, the decline of ecosystems has accelerated, climate change has escalated, natural disasters have intensified, desertification has extended, oceans continue to be used as huge waste dumps, the air is increasingly polluted, rivers, streams mountains and forests are exploited and more than a billion people live in extreme poverty.

What New Zealand said
Environment minister Amy Adams told a followup discussion forum in Wellington on July 19 that the New Zealand Government is committed to oceans management and fossil fuel subsidy reform.

Between $US400 and $US600 billion go to fossil fuel subsidies but only eight percent of those subsidies benefit the poorest people. Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – develop from plant material underground and account for most of the world’s carbon emissions.

‘Some countries spend more on fossil fuel subsidies than on health and education,’ Amy Adams said.

Greens environment spokesperson Kennedy Graham said the world had a governance problem. Most governments would deny there was an ecological crisis and rate Rio as a success.

But if you acknowledge that we are in an ecological crisis – which means resource depletion, biodiversity loss and climate change – you would rate Rio as a failure.

Spokesperson for the New Zealand nongovernment organisations platform at Rio Diana Shand said the Rio document was ‘generally lacking in ambition, urgency and political will’.

‘The document is full of “we know”, “we consider”, “we applaud”, “we uphold” but we don’t see “we commit”.’

Consumption and production are a major problem, she said. It is important that we recognise that inequality affects us all.

Senior lecturer in economics and public policy at Victoria University’s School of Government Cath Wallace welcomed the minister’s commitment to engage with civil society.

But, she said, during the Rio talks the New Zealand Government was amending the Emissions Trading Scheme to extend the period by which agriculture needed to join the scheme.

‘We see a marked retraction from discussion of sustainable development between this government and the previous, Labour government.

Click here to read the Presentations’ report on the conference.

For another view of environmental activism in Brazil, click here.

Images, from top:
School students throughout Brazil made signs and other projects to focus attention on the Earth Summit.

The Presentation representatives at Rio+20. Srs Rosemary Grundy, Australia (author of the Presentations’ report), Betty Rae Lee, Newfoundland, Associate Mary-Ann Greaney, New Zealand, Marcella Cruz, Ecuador and Zimbabwe Associate Tamai Mafuse waiting for a cable car to the top of the mountain.

Contractors tried to show their sustainability in the different kinds of food they provided and the use of recyclable cups and plates. The bamboo structure of the food hall, above, was of sustainable renewable resources – living organisms absorb carbon and convert it to oxygen – note the sprouts growing out of the bamboo.

A favela or slum in Rio de Janeiro, the capital of Brazil, with largely temporary housing.
Contrast the favela with the governmental social housing.