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Return to Rio

June 18, 2012 10:13 IST

Over a hundred world leaders including the Indian prime minister will be at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio. It is likely to be one of the biggest conferences of its kind, says BS Prakash, India's Ambassador to Brazil.

In the coming weeks, we will see a great deal of discussion and commentary centred on the concept of `sustainable development'. The occasion will be the mega UN Conference on the subject from mid-June onwards in the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Over a hundred world leaders including the Indian prime minister are expected to attend the final segment from June 20 to 23, but the event also brings together prominent scientists, academics and civil society activists. In sheer numbers and diversity of participation it is likely to be one of the biggest conferences of its kind.

The event marks 20 years of the 1992 conference in the same city on global environment and hence is also getting known as Rio plus 20. How has Rio as a city and Brazil as a country come to resonate with these big issues? With this writer's privileged perch as an interested observer located in Brazil, some answers are being attempted here.

A word about the '20-year' perspective on global environmental and developmental issues may be useful. The first-ever conference under the UN was held in Stockholm in 1972 and it can be said that environment was put on the global agenda as a result.

A significant contribution to the debate came from then prime minister Indira Gandhi who recognised that 'poverty is the biggest pollutant', a description of the painful reality that has impacted the discussion to this day.

Her emphasis on this aspect also showed the inherent link between environmental and developmental issues. One of the results of the conference was the establishment of the United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP, the status and future of which will again come up for discussion at the Rio+20.

Twenty years later, in June 1992, what came to be known as the 'Earth Summit' was held in Rio, resulting in a declaration with important principles which define the debate today. By this time, the importance of human activities on nature had come to be recognised more clearly and there was a slowly emerging consciousness that we are damaging the only habitat that we have.

One result of the 1992 conference was the beginning of serious climate change negotiations eventually leading to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Another was the process leading to thinking about preserving the biological diversity, a process that will lead to a big global meet in Hyderabad in October this year.

In the public imagination, Rio, an exotic city, also came to be identified as a locale where thousands of environmental and civil society activists made their views known, mingled with governmental representatives, a phenomenon that will be even more manifest in the forthcoming meet.

It is not the purpose in this column to debate the issues themselves all of which -- climate change, bio diversity, energy, water, forests, goals and targets for sustainable development -- are complex, contentious and substantive, both in the short and in the long term.

They deal with the earth and the humanity, no less. The more restricted purpose is to introduce the nature of issues that will come up in Rio+20 and of Brazil's role as the host. With this in view, some aspects can be highlighted.

Brazil at the level of its President Dilma Rouseff and Environmental Minister Issabel Teixeira -- incidentally, both women like our own Environment Minister Jayanti Natarajan -- regards this conference as an opportunity for the world to focus on sustainable development and not merely environment.

The former is a broader and more philosophical concept with connotations of what the earth can bear if its riches and resources continue to be exploited by us without concern for the future generations. The countries on this earth are indubitably at different stages of development, have different models of development and different patterns of consumption, be it of energy, water, forests, or other resources.

Are these sustainable over a period of time and if not, how do we change our lifestyles? Given the vast differences in the nations of size, demography, natural resources, wealth, and technology, are there viable approaches on which nations can agree on what to do for the future? This all-comprehensive meta issue is what the simple term 'sustainable development' hides.

The concept has at least three pillars as the conference recognises: economic, social and environmental. Taken together, they encompass many overlapping issues.

For instance, what are the economic implications of burning lesser hydro carbons and shifting to renewable sources of energy, and on this issue alone how will it economically impact major oil exporters and importers?

What are the costs of 'green technologies' being developed in the West and can developing countries afford to adopt them?

How will a country with large numbers of poor people cope with newer standards for energy consumption or carbon emission?

Deforestation no doubt impacts on environment, but what if large farmers want to fell forests to increase agricultural land?

Can targets be set for sustainable development, before the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, are realised?

Then there are the institutional and financial issues inherent in any international negotiation. Where and how will the nations debate and regulate the goal setting? How will the less developed countries find the money to make the adaptations and changes? It should be evident from these examples that the issue of sustainable development is comprehensive and complex.

As stated earlier, it relates to man and nature and the competition between man and man for resources. Underlying our understating should be the Gandhian view of how the earth may be able to sustain mankind's needs but not everyone's greed. And the sobering thought that if the earth's population continues to grow, not even the essential needs of ten billion beings can be met!

To return to the earlier question, why Rio and why Brazil? There are no official reasons given explicitly for the choice of the locale for a UN Conference, just as there are none for hosting a mega sports event, say the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics -- which incidentally will also be hosted by Brazil in 2014 and 2016. But some speculative reasoning can be attempted.

Rio is not only spectacularly beautiful and vibrant, but has everything for a nature enthusiast with hills jutting out of the Atlantic and lush green rain forests surrounding the city. It is a favourite venue for events and conferences with great beaches, beautiful people and a nonchalant attitude.

Brazil has the Amazon, the river and the forest, preservation of which is essential for the earth. It has the world's most abundant water resources, has innovated successfully with bio fuel for transport, and is rich in resources: agricultural, mineral and now oil.

Seen in terms of issues and politics too, Brazil is uniquely placed. It is a developing country which consciously identifies itself as such and shows solidarity with the rest of the developing world, but has emerged as the fifth largest global economy with a GDP exceeding that of the UK.

Equally significant are the strides made by Brazil in poverty alleviation, food security and energy self-sufficiency. Thus, while Brazil is fully aware of the challenges of development, it also accepts the responsibilities of striving for sustainable growth. It is teeming with NGOs and activists interested in the Amazon, the ocean and rivers, animal and plant life and in general is an active and influential participant in the entire range of issues that are likely to come up.

Will the conference come up with concrete results or will it be a talk marathon? Brazil will want a legacy from the meet, even while recognising that the current international climate is difficult. It is perhaps more apt to see the journey to Rio and the journey thereafter as a sea voyage instead of a travel by 'road'. Not just because Rio is a port city and was first reached by the sailors.

Metaphorically, ships move slowly and progress incrementally. So is the voyage likely to be to achieve the objectives in the environmental and developmental debate, all the more because there is no single captain.

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at ambassador@indinaembassy.org.br

You can read more columns by Mr Prakash here.

B S Prakash