Rio+20 : sustainable development 20 years later…

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The well-known and recognized expert on sustainable development, Lester Brown gives an outlook of what have been done in term of sustainability for last 20 years.

What has changed since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit?

In 20 years, we have not solved one single major problem that humanity is facing. Deforestation, biodiversity erosion, climate change, hunger… And yet, we are more aware of these problems. Increased climate phenomena are contributing factors: in 2011, parts of Manhattan were even evacuated for the first time because of Hurricane Irene which attracted the attention of all the television channels.

Nevertheless, haven’t there been some positive changes ?

Since Rio, the population growth rate has slowed down. Renewable energy has increased considerably. And in the United States, carbon emissions decreased by 7 % between 2007 and 2011. Countries are consuming less fuel. Motors are more efficient and society is changing: young people now prefer smartphones to big cars…

And in other countries?

The situation is changing very fast. For years, China has produced solar panels and wind turbines for the West. Now, it is installing them itself. At the moment, China is building 6 20 GW wind turbine megacomplexes. Each one will be able to supply enough electricity for a country like Poland: it’s a first! But China is still building a lot of coal-fired power plants. And the world is still affected by one problem: supply. Demand is increasing but the soil keeps getting poorer and water is in short supply… Rice production in Japan and wheat production in France have virtually stopped increasing, or are increasing very slowly, and there is no technology that can realistically reverse the situation in the coming years: we have reached a limit.

What perspectives are you expecting at the Rio + 20 summit?

The most important events no longer occur during major international summits. There was of course the ozone and the Montreal Convention but replacing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was easy. The problems we now face are much more complicated. Solutions will come from countries or companies taking strong initiatives that others will follow. This is the case of the Desertec initiative (that aims at building a network of huge solar power systems in North Africa) led by German companies. The Beyond Coal campaign, launched by the Sierra Club in the United States is another example. This campaign wants to shut down the country’s coal-fired power plants. It recently announced the closure of the hundredth plant in February 2012; this a very fast and radical change. .

Is it not too late?

Time is certainly the most important factor and we can’t rely on the next generation to solve our problems. Society and mindsets have to undergo profound changes but such changes are possible as was shown by the mobilisation during the Second World War. This gives you a general idea of the magnitude of the task.

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