What Will It Take to Slow the World's 'Unsustainable Path'?

There are no barricades on the road to ruin, but it's equipped with lots of speed limits, warning signs and stoplights. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) tracks over 500 internationally agreed goals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing biodiversity loss, and numerous other environmental safeguards. In preparation for the upcoming Rio+20 Summit, UNEP announced this week that "significant progress" has been made on only four of the 90 most important of those environmental goals and objectives.

In releasing its report, the fifth edition of the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5), UNEP warned that "The world continues to speed down an unsustainable path." Its Executive Director, Achim Steiner, said "If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail and cannot be reversed and 'decoupled,' then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation."

To those concerned about the environment and the long-term well-being of humanity, the lack of progress on these goals comes as no surprise. The dead hand of inertia that holds back progress on climate change negotiations also presides, with very few exceptions, over efforts to address every other environmental challenge.

The critical, unanswered question is what will it take to slow our progress on the road to ruin? If little is being done on 86 of the 90 most important environmental goals and objectives, what will it take to generate action?

Twenty years ago, when world leaders convened in Rio for the Earth Summit, 172 governments participated, with 108 sending their heads of state or government. Hopes were high that they were galvanized for action. The political rhetoric certainly rose to the occasion, even if the underlying political will was still lacking. The 1992 Rio declaration urged countries to "reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies." It also invoked the precautionary principle, declaring that, "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

The delegates to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit declared in Agenda 21, which was ultimately approved by 178 governments, that, "Humanity stands at a defining moment in history." Some defining moment. In the past 20 years notable progress has been made in improving health and education in the developing world, but very little has been done to stop the degradation of the environment or to slow the depletion of the natural resources upon which our continued prosperity and well-being depends.

The hope is, although it's a fading one, that this month's Rio+20 Summit will re-engage the global community and steer humanity onto a sustainable path. With world population projected to climb from 7 billion to 9 billion or higher by 2042, and the world economy still on track to triple or quadruple in size by mid-century, the task of reconciling what we demand from the planet with what the planet can sustainably provide is daunting, if not impossible. Business-as-usual is just another name for the road to ruin.

The latest Living Planet report published by the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Footprint Network estimates that humanity is already using 50 percent more in terms of renewable resources than what the Earth can naturally regenerate. By their estimate, we will need 2.9 Earths by 2050 to sustain us. That's 1.9 Earths that we don't have.

Thirty leading scientists assembled by the Stockholm Resilience Centre have identified nine "planetary boundaries," which if crossed, could cause irreparable harm to the planet. They assert that we have already exceeded three of them: climate change, nitrogen loadings, and the rate of biodiversity loss. The other six -- ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone, aerosol loadings, freshwater use, land use changes, and chemical pollution -- are, to varying degrees, approaching a scale "where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded."

Instead of attending another international convention, it sounds like these scientists need to stage what psychiatrists would call an intervention. But isn't that what the 1992 Rio Summit was supposed to accomplish? Wasn't it supposed to jar us to our senses?

The fault lies not with our scientists, but with our political leaders. When it comes to climate change and other environment challenges, Mitt Romney can plead ignorance, even if it's feigned. But what about President Obama? When he campaigned four years ago, Obama said that, "We can't just tell people what they want to hear, we need to tell them what they need to hear." If ever there was a time for straight talk about the challenges facing humanity, this is it. President Obama should go to Rio.