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Lack of nerve for environmental action

Rio+20 has produced a document full of good intentions, but no commitment

Last Friday saw the conclusion of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development — also known as Rio+20, in reference to the Earth Summit held in the same Brazilian city 20 years ago. And it has ended with a sad, disappointing result: a document filled with clichés and good intentions, but not one solid commitment. It satisfies everyone because it obliges no one to do anything — in stark contrast to what happened in 1992, when the summit seemed to open a new era of concerted global action in pursuit of a more equitable and sustainable kind of development.

There is no doubt that the crisis is one of the major reasons why the countries that are most decisive when it comes to making global decisions now seem to lack the nerve for undertaking reforms.

Policies aimed at eradicating poverty and hunger in the world; at the protection of the oceans; at reducing emissions of greenhouse-effect gases deriving from the massive use of fossil fuels as an energy source; at ensuring sustainable development; and at forging what everyone calls the “green economy” but which everyone interprets in their own way — all these overarching objectives do not address the pressing problems raised every day by the economic crisis, though they are essential in the long term.

And, of course, all of this comes with the aggravating circumstance that when it becomes obvious that we have to do something about these issues, it will already be too late.

It is clear that the economic crisis tends to relegate everything that is not of immediate concern to the background.

But there are more problems out there than the crisis. The feeling of failure in world forums of this sort has been chronic for many years, and cannot be blamed entirely on the complicated situation that developed nations have been going through in recent years. There has been a regression in the political and social drive with which, two decades ago, world leaders faced the problem of reaching global agreements for a more sustainable future.

The reasons are many and various, but the chief among them include the following. On the part of the richest countries, such as the United States, an intense national selfishness and willful blindness to world problems, the US in particular having systematically refused to accept any binding agreement that might imply the least sort of adverse effect on its economy. On the part of Europe, a notable loss of authority to get its (normally more progressive) points of view adopted. And on the part of once-poor countries who have become genuine political and economic powers, such as China, a refusal to shoulder an equitable share of the effort, since these countries now make a significant contribution to the environmental deterioration of the planet.

In short, the disappointing lack of nerve is due to a series of factors that already existed before the crisis, but for which the crisis has served as an excellent excuse.

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