19 June 2012

The Earth Summit - 20 years on and has anything changed?

The Earth Summit takes place in Rio on 20-22 June 2012, 20 years since that first ground-breaking summit in Rio. The 1992 summit grabbed the world's attention. It was attended by 108 world leaders and other senior officials, plus thousands of representatives of NGOs and the world's press.  There was some tough talking and out of the conference came agreements and directives that have influenced the world ever since:
  • the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development,
  • Statement of Forest Principles
  • The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, from which sprung the Kyoto Protocol
  • The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity
  • Agenda 21 
But have they made any difference?

In 1992 there was widespread water pollution, both fresh and salt water,  raw sewage was regularly dumped  into our rivers and seas, fisheries were being overfished and tropical rainforest deforestation was happening at an ever increasing pace. CFCs and ozone depletion was being tackled and scientists were getting worried about climate change.Things were looking a bit brighter for biodiversity. Governments had signed up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity which declared that biological resources were to be shared and managed sustainably (this was at a time when people were concerned that large companies would grab the genetic resources of less developed countries).  In 1990, CITES had put a ban on ivory in place and elephant numbers were beginning to creep up.

Agenda 21 probably had the greatest impact on our daily lives. Many governments endorsed this whole-heartedly, and local governments and NGOs appointed their Agenda 21 officers. Agenda 21 was about sustainable development, beating poverty, helping developing countries, protecting natural resources through the reduction in deforestation and pollution control, and, importantly,  thinking local.

Here are some of our images from the early 1990s.

 Trees killed by acid rain from the burning of lignite were a common sight, like these in the former East  Germany (Ecoscene / Sally Morgan)

In Brazil, deforestation of the tropical rainforest was happening at a great pace, especially the Atlantic Forest behind Rio itself (Joel Creed / Ecoscene)
Deforestation was happening in Malaysia and Indonesia too, here in Malaysia the forest was cleared for new rubber plantations (Erik Schaffer / Ecoscene).

Water pollution was another problem in developing countries. The white foam on this river in East Germany was a result of detergent, now less of a problem as most detergents are biodegradable. (Chinch Gryniewicz / Ecoscene)

Another of the topics discussed in 1992 was the improvement of air quality in cities through the use of unleaded petrol  and use of catalytic converters on engines (Chinch Gryniewicz / Ecoscene)

And who could forget the iconic shroud of smog lying over LA, created by millions of cars pumping out fumes combined with the local atmospheric conditions. (Andrew Brown / Ecoscene)

So, 20 years on. The leaders of more than 130 countries are expected to turn up, along with their teams of advisors, and thousands of NGO representatives. What has been achieved in the last 20 years?

Deforestation continued to get worse during the 1990s reaching a rate of loss of about 16 million hectares a year. Since 2000 the rate has slowed down, with the loss of 13 million hectares of forest being lost a year.  There is a lot of forest planting going on, especially in China and Vietnam but when losses and gains are taken into account, there is still an annual decrease in forest area the size of Costa Rica. Its not good news for biodiversity, as the losses are mostly virgin forests with a high biodiversity and they are replaced by plantations that support far fewer species.

Most people agree that Climate Change is really happening and that levels of greenhouse gases need to be reduced. Kyoto has been and gone and there has been a lot of talk and not a huge amount of action. However, with rising costs of fossil fuels, there has been an uptake of renewal energy sources, especially in the more remote places of the world where a traditional electricity grid is not economic, such as this school in India which relies on solar energy. (Chinch Gryniewicz / Ecoscene)

Biodiversity is now a common word and 2010 saw the launch of the UN Decade of  Biodiversity (2011-2020). The aim is to achieve the 5 goals of the Aichi Target, namely
  • to address the underlying cause of biodiversity loss
  • reduce the pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use
  • improve biodiversity status by protecting ecosystems, species and genetic diversity
  • enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity
  • enhance implementation through planning and management
In North America and Europe, water quality is much improved  and ecologists report seeing species that are sensitive to pollution, returning the rivers. However water pollution remains an issue in many other parts of the world, where there are fewer controls. Take the Yamuna River in India, for example, This river flows  beside the iconic Taj Mahal and very few visitors are aware that just a few hundred metres from this World Heritage Site, is the most polluted river in India, a product of uncontrolled industrial development along its banks combined with the waste from millions of people. 

In a world with a growing human population and an ever increasing demand for clean water, water resources will continue to be an issue, especially against the backdrop of climate change, disrupted weather patterns and extreme weather events.

Having heard the press release from Tusk this morning about the transport of a couple of rhinos from Aspinalls in Kent to Tanzania, I can't finish without mentioning the plight of the rhino. Twenty-odd years ago the future looked quite bright for the rhino with poaching under control and numbers increasing. Sadly, a few idiots believe that rhino horn is a miracle cure, and the value of powered rhino horn has been pushed sky-high, threatening the very survival of all the rhinos. This gory image of a dead rhino was taken by Karl Amman many years ago.

Now rhinos have to be protected 24/7 or have their rhinos removed so they are not the target of poachers. Here a female rhino in South Africa is drugged so that her horn can be remove. (Luc Hosten / Ecoscene)

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