Rio 20 proves a damp squib of a summit

Participants say the world’s biggest environment powwow has failed to deliver. Malaka Rodrigo reports exclusively for the Sunday Times from Rio de Janeiro

The world’s biggest environment event – in fact, the biggest in the Earth’s history – has ended on a weak and inclusive note, according to experts.
Developed and developing nations were represented at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro last week.

It was attended by an estimated 5,000 persons, including 86 presidents and heads of state, among them Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Dubbed Rio+20, the summit marked the 20th anniversary of the historic Earth Summit convened in 1992 in the same city.

Promoting a green economy was the summit’s banner theme, and top of the agenda was the list of Sustainable Development Goals countries would have to be implemented to achieve these goals. The Sustainable Development Goals will replace the Millennium Development Goals identified at the earlier summit.

Developed countries want developing nations to practise a green economy, one that restricts unsustainable activities and promotes Earth-friendly new technologies, such as renewable energy. Countries were divided on how to go about achieving these goals. The idea of using trading conditions between countries to promote green economy practices was not universally welcomed. The general consensus was that the summit was not as productive as many would have liked.

Sri Lanka’s position on Rio+20 was largely in line with that of the Group of 77, a coalition of developing countries.
Minister of Environment Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who was in Rio with ministerial colleagues Champika Ranawaka, Mahinda Amaraweera, G. L. Peiris and Wimal Weerawansa, said the Sri Lanka Government supported the goal of Sustainable Development, and believed that a Green Economy was a good idea,“But there should be technology transfer to enable developing countries to grow,” the Minister said. “Without easy access to the latest green technologies, developing countries will not be able to make the adjustments needed to make their economies green.”

In his Rio +20 address, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said outsiders should not encroach on a country’s natural resources, whether on land or in the ocean. “Protection of the sea bed and the ocean floor against damage by the use of environmentally unfriendly methods of fishing, such as bottom trawling, should be guaranteed by international law and practice,” he said.

President Rajapaksa was clearly alluding to South Indian fishermen who resort to banned fishing practices, such as bottom trawling, in the seas around the island’s north.

The world’s oceans were a priority at discussions, but here again participants felt that more could have been achieved.
Besides government delegates, other Sri Lankans also attended Rio+20.

Hemantha Withanage, founder of the Centre for Environmenal Justice, said the summit had failed to deliver clear guidelines for following a path of sustainable growth practices. While countries agreed to continue pursuing environment goals identified at the 1992 summer, they had not come up with a clear financial mechanism to achieve these goals.

Lalanath de Silva, who represented a Sri Lankan think-tank based in the US, said there were “positives to take home from Rio+20.”
Some groups attending Rio+20 felt the summit was a complete failure. On Thursday, protesters taking up a position near the entrance to the summit venue, where the top-level plenary sessions were in progress, said the Green Economy would not save the Earth, which was being battered by anti-environmental practices.

Teen tells world leaders to save the Earth for future generations�

World leaders attending the Rio+20 summit were told to their faces that they had failed to act responsibly and honour promises to protect the Earth. The forceful speaker was not another world leader but a teenager, 17-year-old Brittany Trilford, from New Zealand. As winner of a youth video speech contest, she was invited to address the distinguished gathering at the summit opening ceremony.

“Are you here to save face, or are you here to save us?” asked Ms. Trilford, looking accusingly into the faces of presidents and prime ministers.
“I stand here with fire in my heart,” she said. “I am confused and angry at the state of the world, and I want us to work together now to change this. We are here to solve the problems that we have caused as a collective, to ensure that we have a future.

“You and your governments have promised to reduce poverty and sustain our environment. You have already promised to combat climate change, ensure clean water and food security. Multi-national corporations have already pledged to respect the environment, green their production, compensate for their pollution. These promises have been made and yet, still, our future is in danger.”

Besides addressing more than 130 world leaders, the “Date With History” speech contest winner had already addressed hundreds of decision-makers, including 300 legislators and more than 1,000 business leaders.

Brittany’s resounding words recalled another eloquent speech on the state of the world’s environment given 20 years earlier by Severn Suzuki, at the 1992 Earth Summit. Severn Suzuki was 12 years old at the time, and her speech brought her a standing ovation. The video of Severn’s Earth Summit address was recently uploaded on You-Tube and has attracted thousands of hits. Suzuki was one of the guests in the audience last week to hear Brittany Trilford speak. At a press conference she gave last week, she said, “The world needs to hear this message, and that may be the reason people still want to listen to that speech.”

The Sunday Times had an opportunity to talk to both Severn Suzuki and Brittany Trilford during the summit. Suzuki recalled her experience in Rio in 1992. “That six minutes, talking at the UN Earth Summit, is the most powerful thing I’ve ever done,” she said. The 32-year-old Suzuki, an environment activist in Canada and the mother of two, is outspoken about the promises world leaders made two decades ago which have not been honoured. “On that occasion I was heard, but not listened to,” she said. “There is plenty of talk but not enough action.”

Suzuki did not seem optimistic about the outcome of Ri0+20. “It’s not going to make much of difference to the world. We might as well describe it as another missed opportunity.”

We asked Britanny Tilford whether she feared her speech would go the same way as Suzuki’s, bouncing off world leaders who would not follow up. “That is a possibility, but the point to stress is that the coming generations are the most at risk. It is their future that is in danger,” she said with emphasis.

“I went up there to speak the truth to the powers that be, just as Suzuki did 20 years ago. I called on world leaders to stop saving face and start acting to save future generations.”

Brittany pointed out that young people were the majority, and that they wielded tremendous power. “Time is ticking by, quickly running out. You have 72 hours to decide the fate of your children, my children, my children’s children. And I start the clock now� Tik. Tik. Tik.”

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