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Statement by Maurice F. Strong at Special United Nations General Assembly Event on Rio+20, New York, October 25th, 2011.
First let me say how pleased I am to participate in this Special Event in preparation for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, Rio+20. I very much appreciate the opportunity accorded to me by Under-Secretary-General Sha Zukang, in his capacity as Secretary-General of Rio+20, to assist him and his Secretariat in their challenging task of preparing for the Conference and sharing the insights and lessons learned from previous UN Conferences, notably the Earth Summit of 1992.
Brazil demonstrated, in its hosting of the Earth Summit in 1992, its unsurpassed capacity to organize and host such events as well as making important contributions to the preparatory process. As host and Chair of Rio+20 it will make an indispensible contribution to the prospects for its success.
There have been immense changes in the world since the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 put the environment issue on the world agenda. Some notable progress has since been made in awareness and understanding of the issues we must address, in our capacity to do so, in the urgency of the need for decisive actions and the dire consequences of our failure to act.
The ominous paradox
The ominous paradox is that the will to act suffers today from the decline in public attention and the pre-occupation of governments with more immediate financial and economic concerns. This is reflected in the continued lack of progress in implementing past commitments as well as the prospect of undertaking new ones at Rio+20. This recession in political will will have far more damaging consequences for the human future than the more immediate issues that give rise to it.
Indeed, it has never been more important to heed the evidence of science that time is running out on our ability to manage successfully our impacts on the Earth’s environmental, biodiversity, resource and life-support systems on which human life as we know it depends. We must rise above the lesser concerns that preempt our attention and respond to the reality that the future of human life on Earth depends on what we do, or fail to do in this generation. What we have come to accept as normal is not normal, as increased human numbers, the growing intensity of human impacts and the demographic dilemma faced by so many nations are returning the Earth to the conditions that have been normal for most of its existence that do not support human life as we know it.
We must deal with this as the most dangerous security issue humanity has ever faced, with the very conditions necessary to life on Earth at risk.
A unique opportunity
It is in this larger context that we must view Rio+20 as a unique opportunity to make the fundamental “change of-course” called for by business leaders at the Earth Summit in 1992. It requires fundamental changes in the way in which we manage the activities through which we impact on the Earth’s sustainability. This will require a degree of cooperation beyond anything we have yet experienced at a time when competition and conflict over scare resources is escalating.
The decisions and policies which determine our impacts on sustainability are primarily motivated by economic and financial considerations. The transcendent importance of the actions to be taken at Rio + 20 require that they be firmly rooted in our deepest moral and ethical principles. This is why I feel so strongly that Rio +20 must endorse and be grounded by the Earth Charter. The change of course called for at Rio in 1992 requires radical changes in our current economic system. This will need to be led by those countries, mostly Western, which have dominated the world economy during the period in which our cumulative damage to the Earth’s life-support systems, its precious biological resources and its climate, have occurred and have monopolized the economic benefits of this. Rio+20 must reinforce the focus on Biodiversity to which this Decade on Biodiversity is devoted so that it will lead to specific actions on implementation of the measures required to protect these resources so essential to global sustainability.
Experience has demonstrated that those countries that have been most successful in improving their environment are those, like Japan, which have been most efficient in managing their economies and reducing the energy, resources and materials used to produce their GDP. Rio +20 must provide for special measures to assist developing countries in the efficiency of their economies.
The political will to act
No issue is more important to the human future than that of climate change in which the political will to act cooperatively and decisively has dangerously diminished. Rio+20 must reinforce international efforts at Durban and beyond to reach agreement and renewal of the Climate Change Convention and its implementation. Paradoxically, if we fail to act, the reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions could occur through the collapse of the world economy, to which none of us would aspire. After all, the roots of the environmental and climate change crises are the same as those of the economic and financial crises – the inadequacies of our economic system.
Only an enlightened view of their own self-interest in the security and sustainability of life is likely to induce the more developed countries to accept the principal responsibility they bear for the fundamental change of course that we must make. Developing countries must play their part but their responsibilities are of a different order of magnitude.
The concept of shared but differentiated responsibilities must be strongly reinforced at Rio+20.
The growing inequities in sharing the benefits of economic growth continue to provide a widening rich-poor divide in virtually all countries, even in China, which has lifted more people of poverty than any nation has ever done. This undermines the prospect of enabling the poor and disadvantaged to share fully and equitably in the benefits of sustainable development and will lead to social unrest, evidence of which is already emerging.
Time precludes my elaborating on the various actions that could be taken at Rio+20 which would make it a major milestone on the pathway to sustainability. As most of these have already been raised at the High-level Symposium in Beijing and the Delhi Ministerial Dialogue in New Delhi, I will note them only briefly here.