At Rio+20 Earth Summit, Governments Must "Show Us the Money"

For decades, our collective "ecological footprint" has exceeded what the Earth can sustainably provide, now by over 50 percent. This may be our last best chance to deal seriously with the global environmental crisis before it is too late.
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Many scientists agree that to save the environment of our life-sustaining home planet, we are running out of time. It's clear we are at, or near, a tipping point beyond which irreversible environmental degradation will occur. It is time we-the-people stand up and demand bold, urgent action to secure an environmentally sustainable future.

A good time to do such would be as world leaders gather this June in Rio de Janeiro for the "Rio+20 Earth Summit." At this gathering, there will be two, and only two, possible outcomes:

1. They will simply continue the political pretense and subterfuge of past such gatherings, say nice things, make vague promises and continue business-as-usual, or:

2. They will agree to a legally binding, emergency action plan to achieve a sustainable environment and society by 2020, and commit an additional $300 billion per year globally to this goal.

From the early drafts of the preparatory document for Rio+20 entitled The Future We Want, governments are clearly hoping for another "business-as-usual" outcome. But as this may be our last best chance to deal seriously with the global environmental crisis before it is too late, we must demand more. We pay of what we value, and if we truly value a sustainable, prosperous, peaceful future, governments need to 'show us the money' at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, putting up $300 billion per year through 2020. Consider it an emergency "environmental stimulus" package.

The 2012 Earth Summit will take place forty years after the first U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, which produced the Stockholm Declaration, and created the U.N. Environment Program. But afterward, the global environment continued to get worse. Then, one hundred world leaders convened the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, at which five agreements were made: the Rio Declaration, including general principles such as, "peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible;" Agenda 21, encouraging sustainable development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs;" the Convention on Climate Change; the Convention on Biological Diversity; and a Statement of Principles on Forests. Then there was Rio+5; the 2000 U.N. Millennium Declaration, the Millennium Development Goals, and the Earth Charter; and Rio+10 in 2002 in Johannesburg. And after all this, you guessed it, the global environment continued to get worse.

In fact, over the past 40 years, governments have entered into hundreds of multilateral environmental agreements and treaties, and nations have passed thousands of domestic environmental laws and policies. But while these laudable agreements have certainly slowed environmental decline, just as certainly they have not halted or reversed it. We continue to slip further into an irreversible environmental abyss; we know it and government leaders continue to take small, perfunctory steps only to appear responsive.

This can be called the "doing-good-but-not-good-enough-paradox:" doing many good things, but collectively not enough to secure a sustainable future. And the many good things being done seem to lull us into a trance-like, hypnotic stupor, thinking we are securing our future. We aren't.

Like in previous meetings, the preparatory document for Rio+20 now in circulation contains the same feel-good rhetoric, with no legally binding commitments. While the environment declines, we seem to only "inhabit the problem" with a mind-numbing litany of thousands of documents all saying essentially the same thing over and over again -- that the environment is in decline and something should be done. This is the "new illiteracy" -- talking and writing about problems rather than taking action to solve them -- and may be the ultimate undoing of Homo Sapiens.

The science on this issue is crystal clear. Our global environment and human condition continue to degrade at alarming rates. For decades, our collective "ecological footprint" -- the environmental impact of the global economy -- has exceeded what the Earth can sustainably provide, now by over 50 percent. As the world economy has grown more than three-fold since 1972, the "ecological debt" we are accruing will be far more consequential than our financial debt.

Today, the human population has surpassed 7 billion, and more than a billion people remain malnourished, thousands of children will die from preventable causes and we will lose thousands of acres of critical forest habitat and dozens of species to extinction. Water tables continue falling due to over pumping for irrigation and urban use; land productivity is declining from erosion and overgrazing; chemical contaminants are found in every corner of the world; and oceans are over-exploited, polluted and becoming acidic. Carbon emissions from our use of fossil energy are dangerously altering climate, accelerating the loss of sea ice and glaciers, sea level rise, record heat waves, floods, droughts, intense storms, and threatening species and entire ecosystems. In semiarid regions, grain harvests are declining, hundreds of villages have been abandoned due to lack of water and encroaching deserts, and thousands of climate refugees are on the move. The gap between rich and poor widens, food scarcity and soaring prices are causing food riots, famine and disease are on the rise, and there are now dozens of failed states with no ability to provide for their citizens. By most objective measures, we are a civilization in collapse, and business-as-usual is a certain course to disaster.

The good news is that a growing number of people now recognize the severity of the environmental crisis and seem determined to fix it before it is too late. Many individuals around the world are adjusting their lifestyles to minimize their own ecological footprint. While important, individual responsibility alone will not be enough to reverse global environmental decline. For this, we urgently need aggressive government intervention. We need to redefine global security in terms of environmental and social sustainability, rather than in outdated military terms. But so far the response of governments has been insufficient. We need more from governments, and we need it now.

To stabilize climate temperatures we have to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020 by increasing energy efficiency (the United States wastes over half of the energy it uses), and shifting to low-carbon renewable sources. The key to the sustainable energy transition is to tax carbon, and shift government subsidies from fossil energy to sustainable energy (a proposal recently rejected by the U.S. Senate). Restoring Earth's ecosystems requires expanded efforts in forest protection, tree planting, soil conservation, low-impact agriculture, rangeland restoration, ocean conservation, recycling, more efficient irrigation and water use and biodiversity protection. Stabilizing population and eradicating poverty require expanding our social support to developing countries, including universal primary education, literacy, family planning, and basic health care.

And all such effort will take more money. Lester Brown estimates in his Plan B that to achieve these goals, an additional $185 billion per year over current global spending is needed. Others put the figure at $300 billion per year over present spending.

Clearly, most of this additional funding will have to come from developed world governments, through rational taxation on the private sector, coupled with the political resolve to spend the additional revenues on environmental and sustainability needs. Historically, governments have fallen far short of providing the money needed. For instance, although governments agreed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to dedicate 0.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to Official Development Assistance to developing countries, most, including ours, have failed to keep this commitment. The United States currently provides only about 0.2 percent of GDP to development assistance. And faced with financial instability, national debts, and political paralysis, governments are reducing, not increasing, environmental spending. Unfortunately, this comes at a time that may be our last best chance to fund the needed transition to sustainability.

If President Obama wants to make a real impact at Rio+20 -- in deed, not just in word -- he needs to show up with checkbook in hand, and "show us the money." As the U.S. GDP is now almost $15 trillion per year, 0.7 percent would amount to about $100 billion per year. This is the amount we must provide to global sustainable development and environmental conservation. The United States should advocate the establishment of a new financial instrument -- the Earth 2020 Fund -- of at least $300 billion per year globally through year 2020. The Global Environment Facility (GEF), a partnership between the World Bank and the United Nations, could manage the Fund.

And as 51 of the world's 100 largest economies are corporations, the private sector clearly possesses substantial financial capacity to contribute to environmental sustainability. As someone once said, "A dead planet is bad for business." We need companies to intensify efforts to reduce their ecological footprint, increase legitimate corporate social responsibility initiatives and improve energy and material efficiency. But we also need some of their money.

Thus, the United States should also propose at Rio+20 the establishment of a new private sector environmental fund, the one percent Earth Profits Fund where the world's largest corporations agree to contribute one percent of annual profits to environmental issues (as proposed at the 2008 IUCN World Conservation Congress). Each year, the world's largest 500 companies (the Global 500) together earn about $1 trillion in profits on about $10 trillion in revenues. If all of the Global 500 companies were to contribute one percent of profits to the Earth 2020 Fund, that would add another $10 billion per year. If they all contribute one percent of revenues, that would add $100 billion per year. Current private sector environmental funding, such as the $15 million per year from one percent For The Planet companies and the $50 million one-time funding of GEF's private sector Earth Fund, while laudable, is 1,000 times less than what is needed. If companies will not contribute voluntarily, governments should tax it from them.

The $300 billion per year Earth 2020 Fund is the level of increased investment that is urgently needed to begin making a real difference in such needs as biodiversity protection; sustainable agriculture, fisheries, and forests; sustainable energy and climate stability; water conservation; sustainable communities and economies; clean air; protected areas management; population stabilization; and so on. And compared to the annual U.S. military budget of over $700 billion, annual world military spending of $1.6 trillion, and the exorbitant future costs of not changing course, the rational choice is perfectly clear.

We can either make this increased investment now, or the biosphere will continue to unravel and we'll consign future generations to a world of chaos, conflict, and deprivation. This would be the smartest long-term investment we could ever make. Indeed, history will reflect kindly on those governments and businesses that rise to this challenge, and harshly on those who don't.

As Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit warned:

No place on the planet can remain an island of affluence in a sea of misery. We are either going to save the whole world or no one will be saved.

We know the risks, and we know how to avoid them. The only question is whether we will act in time. If world leaders aren't prepared to 'show us the money' at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, they should just stay home and spare us the charade. Let's hope they rise to this historic challenge.

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