What do we think about Rio+20?

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

What do we think about Rio+20?

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In June this year, twenty years on from the original Earth Summit, a UN conference on sustainable development will take place in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.  The UK Environment Secretary gave an overview of preparations for this conference yesterday and you can read a copy of her speech here.

I know that many hearts will sink at the thought of politicians gallivanting half way round the world to take stock of the state of the planet and humanity.  The facts are plain for all to see: we are still losing 6 million hectares of tropical forest a year, global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising and nearly a billion people go to bed hungry every night.  

We could easily conclude that we are treating our planet with disdain and that too many of our own species are living in extreme poverty.

But while I may be disappointed by the lack of ambition set out in the agenda for Rio and while some may be sceptical about whether anything concrete will emerge, I still believe that we should mark these anniversaries with debate, discussion and revelation about the ecological crisis that we are undoubtedly in.  And we then need to galvanise the political leadership into action.  In fact, if we can't make world leaders step up for nature, we are all in serious trouble.

Any government may choose to duck the big environmental challenges, in the mistaken belief that saving nature is incompatible with the electoral imperatives of growth and jobs. But it will also isolate itself from a large body of opinion which understands that the earth's resources are finite and that short term problems must be addressed within the context of 'sustainability'.  A government ignoring Rio would also risk portraying the UK as Little Englanders - rather than global leaders.

This year’s summit allows us a moment to take stock and reflect on the gap between political ambitions (for saving nature, tackling climate change and ending poverty) and reality.

It should sober us all up.  We need something - anything -  to shake us out of our drunken, ecologically destructive development agenda.

So when Rio comes, alas squeezed between the great festivals of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, let’s take a moment to think about our world, with all its natural wonders, and the role that each and every one us can play in saving it.  

And my message to the Prime Minister is simple – find the time, go to Rio and commit to doing more. Lead by example and show the rest of us that it matters.  And then actually get on and do it!

And, Mr Cameron, before you book your flight to Rio...

...Reclaim the concept of sustainable development.  Quite rightly, the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, has argued that ours must be the first generation to leave the natural world in a better state than we found it.  And this means...

...understanding and respecting environmental limits.  At home this means finding the finances to implement the ambition of the Natural Environment White Paper and to save threatened wildlife on our Overseas Territories.  Rio+20 provides an opportunity for the Government to show off a little bit and talk about the UK National Ecosystems Assessment.  This groundbreaking work makes the case that we undervalue the environment in decision making and that nature provides the basis for our well-being.  And finally...

...set out to work with other Heads of State to announce a target on deforestation, with the aim of halting it entirely by 2020.  Say it, own it and then do something about it.

Mrs Spelman was unable to confirm or deny Mr Cameron’s participation yesterday.  With the greatest to respect to environment secretaries around the world, I am convinced that change will only come if leaders of states come together to agree action.

Do you agree? What did you think about Mrs Spelman’s speech?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Hi Martin,think all of us who read your blog agree with everything in there,always know you will look at things very optimisticly and wish I could share those views but tend to think politicians say what we want to hear with good intentions but not all on the same wavelength and the momentum falters.Like any group of people it is difficult for all to agree on everything being discussed.

  • I completely agree with all you say Martin. Of course the Prime Minister must attend the Rio + 20 summit. it is a golden opportunity to demonstrate that he heads up "the Greenest Government Ever" On the whole, I think Mrs Spelman is doing a good job but to make things "stick" and to really make things work it needs the Heads of State present. When one takes the long view, and wisdom requires the long view, as to what is more important to the world, the Jubilee, the Olymipics, or Rio +20, it is blatantly obvious that Rio is far and away more important than the other two. However I doubt whether many politicians will see it that way. (There are a large number of myopic politicians). "Watch this space" as they say, I hope we won't be disappointed, but I fear we will. As you say Martin, we have to keep trying. Never,never give up.