Later this month, an event will take place in Rio de Janeiro in which every living man, woman and child, as well as their children and their children’s children, will have a vital stake.
On June 20, about 135 world leaders and 50,000 participants will gather in Rio to determine the global course of action that will sustain the needs of present and future generations without squandering the earth’s resources.
Called Rio+20, after the 1992 Rio conference that formulated guidelines for environment-friendly development for the 21st century, this conference is regarded as the second — many say last — chance for the international community to salvage the sustainable development agenda, or Agenda 21, agreed 20 years ago in that first Earth Summit.
It may indeed be the last chance for the international community to push the reset button to ensure that the more than 7 billion people in the world today can be fed, clothed and sheltered without further damaging the environment.
That’s because 20 years after the first Earth Summit, the world’s environment continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate, while the socioeconomic plight of some 80 percent of humankind remains bleak. Most of the world’s production is consumed by a small percentage of the world’s population. The gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen in the face of uncertainties and the threat of a double-dip depression triggered by the euro-zone crisis.
Efforts to reinvigorate commitment to Rio Agenda 21 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 did not bring much progress. The Bali Climate Conference of 2007 yielded encouraging results, but subsequent global negotiations on climate change were all inconclusive.
The Living Planet Report 2012 issued by the WWF and Global Footprint Network shows a global decline in freshwater supply by 37 percent, with tropical freshwater supply diminishing by a whopping 70 percent. Since 1970, the report says, humankind’s yearly consumption has exceeded what the Earth can renew. Years ago, it was already predicted that the Mekong River in Southeast Asia would be one of 10 river systems to dry up when Himalayan glaciers are lost due to climate change. Those are some of the grim facts that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must face.
The third-largest economy in Asia, Asean is expected to grow at an average of 4 to 5 percent in the next two to three decades. The Asian Development Bank Institute has predicted that, assuming a modest annual growth, by 2030 Asean’s per capita GDP will double or triple its 2010 growth. But that growth will entail massive use of fossil fuels and equally massive greenhouse gas emissions. By 2030, the study indicates, 50 percent of Asean people will live in cities, resulting in the further deterioration of air quality and depletion of drinking water supplies.
Given this backdrop, Asean is called upon to take bold steps to collectively contribute, as a regional community of nations, to the solution of the global challenges of climate change and sustainable development, for the following reasons:
First, given Asean’s explosive growth in the next two decades, sustainable development is not an option, but an imperative. Second, Asean countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines are highly experienced in forging global consensus on sustainable development. Third, the global political landscape is not what it was a decade ago, when there was a clear divide between the developed and developing world. Fourth, Asean’s commitment to sustainable development is enshrined in various important Asean documents, including the Asean Charter. Fifth, by virtue of the Bali Concord III, Asean has solemnly committed itself to contribute to the solution of global problems.
For several years now, Asean has been pursuing a policy of sustainable development. It strives for high and inclusive economic growth without jeopardizing the ecology. Through various arrangements, Asean countries are cooperating among themselves and with dialogue partners to address climate change through sustainable forestry management, the promotion of energy security and energy efficiency, initiatives to make extractive industries more eco-friendly, protecting biodiversity and, in general, promoting a green economy.
At the Rio+20, Asean can advocate such cooperative undertakings and also help build global political consensus toward meaningful outcomes beyond political rhetoric. This is a role for Asean that Indonesia championed during its tenure as Asean chair last year. And Asean has the opportunity to realize it in the upcoming Rio+20 — and thereby help save humankind from the dangerous follies of pollution.
Ngurah Swajaya, Indonesia’s permanent representative to Asean, served as special adviser to the president of the Bali international conferences on climate change in 2007 and the chair of the Preparatory Committee of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2001.