Melanie Smallman: Rio+20 is the second chance we need

Introducing SERA's new pamphlet looking at the opportunity of the Rio+20 UN Sustainable Development Conference, Melanie Smallman says it is the second chance the world needs to deliver on a sustainable future for our planet.

In 1992, when the world’s leaders last met in Rio for the first Earth Summit, I was about to join the Labour Party and was working as a student journalist with a local radio station. I was sent out to interview people in the street to hear what they thought about the Summit and I can still remember the hopeful views they expressed. Rio was where we were going to save the planet.

Twenty years on, as the world’s leaders return to Rio, what progress have we made in meeting this lofty objective? Sadly, in the intervening years, far from saving the planet, the world’s environment has continued to be degraded. Global demand for natural resources has risen even further and biodiversity loss has accelerated. Carbon emissions have increased by 40% – despite the international agreements and reduction targets that have been put in place since, and sadly, one in six people still don’t have enough food. With the world’s population set to increase further into the future, the pressure on the environment is only likely to get worse in the next 20 years. Far from reviewing progress, the pressure is on at Rio+20 to finally find solutions that can work.

And since the 2010 General Election the UK Government has become as much a block to environmental progress as it has to supporting economic growth. At the Copenhagen climate change talks in 2009, Ed Miliband led from the front – literally – working through the night to try and secure a progressive outcome. That spirit of British leadership has disappeared under the coalition.

But apart from time passing and environmental challenges getting greater, there has been one other significant change since 1992 that offers a glimmer of hope today. We are now clearer than ever that the choice between the environment and the economy is a false one. Today we understand that developed economies are the ones most able to tackle environmental concerns and that the only stable economy for the 21st century will be a sustainable economy too.

This pamphlet outlines a Labour perspective about Rio as well as reflections from some of the leading NGOs involved in the negotiations. Our argument is that as well as offering a second chance to save the planet, Rio+20 offers a new chance to save our economies too. The debate about sustainable development goes to the heart of what Ed Miliband has described as responsible capitalism. We discuss the importance of biodiversity on land and in our seas, the challenge of food security and the future covenant for international development. We also consider the role of the business sector as well as the political levers available to us at home, within Europe and on the International scene. The clock is ticking, the sands of time are running, but Rio+20 is the second chance we need, to finally agree how we will build a sustainable future, that will support and nurture all of our planet’s inhabitants.

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