Twenty years on from Rio, we must change the system


Twenty years after the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, the environmental crisis continues to worsen.

The unsustainable development model that dominates the world has led to a grave loss of biodiversity, melting of polar ice caps and mountain glaciers, an alarming rise in deforestation and desertification and the looming danger of an at least 4º Celsius temperature rise.

Science says we are approaching a point of no return that will change the way our planet has behaved over the past 650,000 years.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) that will take place in Rio de Janeiro this June is expected by many to be a milestone opportunity to address the issue of restoring the equilibrium of the Earth’s system.

But instead of moving the world towards a just and sustainable path, the document being negotiated for adoption in June is promoting new market mechanisms for the commodification and financialisation of nature, life and ecosystem services.

Green Economy

This is being done under the mirage of creating a “Green Economy”.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) developed the concept of a Green Economy, arguing that the recurring energy, climate, environmental, food and financial crises are results of “gross mis-allocation of capital”.

The UNEP analysis does not acknowledge the problems inherent in treating nature as capital. This concept has led to the hyper-exploitation of the Earth’s resources and further expanded the severe inequalities between and within nations.

Promoters of the Green Economy consider it essential to put a price on the free services that plants, animals and ecosystems provide for the conservation of biodiversity, water purification, pollination of plants, the protection of coral reefs and regulation of the climate.

For the Green Economy to work, it is necessary to identify the specific functions of ecosystems and assign them monetary values, evaluate their current status, set a limit after which they will cease to provide services, and put a price on the cost of their conservation in order to develop a market for each environmental service.

The architects of the Green Economy believe the instruments of the market are powerful tools for managing the “economic invisibility of nature”.

Since the publication of the 1987 UN Brundtland Report Our Common Future, policy makers have subscribed to the idea that a healthy environment and economic growth should be mutually supportive of each other.

In practice, however, governments have prioritised economic growth over the environment and emphasised business interests and market mechanisms in their concepts of sustainable development.


One example is the initiative known as REDD (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Forest Degradation).

This consists of isolating and measuring the natural capacity of a forest to capture and store carbon dioxide in order to issue certificates for “reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from avoided deforestation” to forest users and/or owners that do not deforest the area.

These certificates can be traded in a variety of primary and derivatives markets, largely benefiting intermediaries. Yet already there are signs that the complex and non-transparent nature of these transactions could eventually bring about a market crash.

The scheme is designed so that these certificates can be bought by companies in developed countries that cannot meet their climate mitigation commitments.

Rather than reduce the excess carbon in the atmosphere, therefore, this “green market mechanism” at best allows pollution to continue to be emitted elsewhere. This is the essence of carbon trading.

Despite efforts to promote REDD as a viable forest conservation and climate change mitigation strategy, and the growing emphasis on safeguards and mechanisms to guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples, many communities are concerned REDD will further erode the rights of indigenous peoples and other local communities.

The REDD market mechanism will permit developed countries more time to keep polluting and buy new forms of control over resources that rightfully should be in the custody of the peoples of the global South.

REDD illustrates many of the problems that are created within carbon trading schemes.

Other initiatives proposed under the paradigm of a Green Economy include the privatisation of water, a push for agro-industrial business operations that impoverishes small farmers, and the development of genetically modified organisms and geo-engineering.

A new path

The ideas of the first Rio conference, and the false solutions adopted and strengthened over the past 20 years, have not been able to abate the social-economic and environmental problems that plague humanity and nature.

To stop the new offensive to commodify and privatise nature, it is necessary to strengthen all the struggles in defence of the commons.

Instead of putting a price on nature, we need to recognise that humans are part of nature and that nature is not a thing or mere supplier of resources. The Earth is a living system, it is our home and a community of interdependent beings and parts of one whole system.

Nature has rules that govern its integrity, interrelationships, reproduction and transformation. In Rio +20 governments should recognise, respect and make sure that the rules of nature prevail.

Instead of applying market rules to nature what we need is to forge a new system based on the principles of:

* peace, harmony and balance among all and with all things;

*complementarity, solidarity, equality and social and environmental justice;

* collective wellbeing and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;
recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own; and

* elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism.

We cannot keep promoting a destructive model of development that does not acknowledge the planetary limits of economic growth.

New technologies should not mean limitless, reckless economic growth propelled only by capitalist motives. Scientific advances, under some circumstances, can help resolve certain problems of development but cannot ignore the natural limits of the Earth's system.

All countries need to produce the goods and services needed to satisfy the fundamental needs of their populations. But by no means can they continue to tread the path of development that has led the richest countries to have an ecological footprint five times bigger than what the planet is able to support.

The regenerative capacity of the planet has already exceeded more than 40%. If this pace of overexploitation of our Mother Earth continues, we will need two planets by the year 2030.

In an interdependent system in which human beings are only one component of the whole, it is not possible to only recognise the rights of the human part without instigating an imbalance in the system.

To guarantee human rights and to restore harmony with nature, it is necessary to effectively recognise and apply the rights of nature.

We have to end the system of wasteful and luxury-oriented consumption that privileges the elite.

Developed countries must change their unsustainable patterns of production and consumption through public policies and regulation. There must be the conscious and active participation of all society, particularly the marginalised sections, to address the grave inequalities in resource use and access within and between nations.

States must guarantee the human right to water, education, health, communication, transportation, energy and sanitation. The provision of these services should be public and based on efficient social management, not private business.

The principal goal should be common wellbeing and not merely private profit, to ensure that these services reach the poorest and most marginalised sectors in an equitable manner.

It is necessary to ensure the right to proper nutrition by strengthening food sovereignty policies and not by promoting agri-businesses.

Ecological debt

Under the framework of common but differentiated responsibilities established in the 1992 Rio Declaration, the so-called developed countries must assume and pay their historical ecological debt for having contributed the most to the deterioration of the Earth's system.

The payment of this ecological debt by developed countries to developing countries and the sectors most affected among their own populations should replace to the greatest possible degree the ecological damage done.

Developed countries should transfer financial resources from public sources and also socially and ecologically appropriate technologies required by sovereign developing countries.

Rich and developed countries must not impose trade agreements on poor and developing countries that contribute to further exploitation and degradation of nature in the latter.

The enormous resources dedicated to defence, security and war budgets by developed countries should be reduced. These resources should instead be used to address the effects of climate change and the imbalance with nature.

It is inexcusable that US$1.5 trillion in public funding is used on these activities, while just $100 billion from public, private funds and market sources is dedicated to address the impacts of climate change in developing countries.

A financial transaction tax should be created to help build a Sustainable Development Fund to attend to the sustainable development challenges faced by developing countries.

This financing mechanism should generate new and stable resources for developing countries. It must be managed with utmost transparency and participation by citizens, not be left to international financial institutions that refuse to change their development framework.

Intellectual property rights over genes, microorganisms and other forms of life are a threat to food sovereignty, biodiversity and access to medicine. All forms of intellectual property over life should be abolished.

The collective global response needed to confront the crisis we face requires structural changes. We must change the capitalist system, not the Earth's system.

[Abridged from Focus on the Global South. Pablo Solon is executive director of Focus on the Global South. He was Bolivia's chief negotiator for climate change and United Nations ambassador from 2009 until June last year.]

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