Rio+20, where is the future children want?

A shorter version of this post was published in The Canberra Times on 25 June 2012.

This week a conglomeration of heads of state, government officials, and representatives from international organisations, corporations and civil society will descend on Rio de Janeiro to talk about the future – in both its broadest and narrowest senses. The gathering marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (popularly known as the Earth Summit), one of the largest UN conferences in history where 108 heads of state and 172 governments committed to the ideal of sustainable development, accepting this to mean “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

In the last 20 years the world’s actions have not lived up to this lofty ideal. A 2009 study by a group of world renowned environmental scientists (including ANU’s Will Steffen) published an article in the journal Nature that defined boundaries for the biophysical processes that determine the Earth’s capacity for self-regulation – an attempt to work out just how far we can push the global environment before it collapses and loses its capacity to support human civilisation. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear the scorecard for our custodianship of the planet wasn’t good. But you may be surprised at the extent of the damage our current lifestyles is doing to the planet.

The research looked at seven different yet interrelated environmental factors that are crucial for life on earth and sought to establish boundaries that we, as a species, must stay within in order to avoid “catastrophic environmental change”. Sadly, the research found we are already well outside the limits of safety for three factors (climate change, biodiversity loss, and the nitrogen cycle) and that we are creeping dangerously close to the boundaries of two other factors (the phosphorus cycle and ocean acidification). Fresh water use and land system change were deemed to be currently within acceptable limits, but on a negative trajectory, while the too little data was available to accurately assess the state of the final two factors (chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading).

All of this paints a less than rosy picture of the health of our planet.

The summit, dubbed Rio+20 “The Future We Want”, also marks the 20th anniversary of two key international environmental treaties that were established at the Earth Summit: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. It is a sad irony that the Planetary Boundaries research found that the very issues these conventions were designed to address are the worst performing of the seven environmental factors measured. Perhaps we should all be grateful the Earth Summit didn’t produce conventions on any of the other areas or the world might be in far worse shape.

A recent report from WWF concurs that we are fast using up irreplaceable resources, concluding that we are using the equivalent of 1.5 planets to sustain our current lifestyles. The report lays the blame squarely at the feet of rich countries like Australia, which have an environmental footprint five times the size of poor countries.

Save the Children is participating in a 15-year study of childhood poverty tracking the lives of 12,000 children across four countries. The study, calledYoung Lives has found that poor children bear the brunt of the human impacts of environmental shocks and climate change, not only on account of their age and stage of development, but because more children live in poverty than do other age groups. Unpredictable and extreme weather, such as droughts and floods, rising pollution levels, poor access to sanitation and other public services, combined with global economic instability, are undermining children’s healthy development and reinforcing the poverty cycle.

The study is examining, among other issues, children’s relationship with their environment in three ways: the impact of environmental shocks; the effects of food insecurity on children’s lives; and children’s relationship to the environment in which they live. It is using quantitative and qualitative data from Peru, Ethiopia, India, and Vietnam to demonstrate children’s vulnerability as a result of environmental insecurity, and to highlight children’s hopes and concerns for the future. These hopes and concerns are not adequately reflected in international forums like Rio+20.

Twenty years ago at the Earth Summit 172 governments, including Australia, endorsed Agenda 21, an international agreement aimed at ensuring global sustainable development. Agenda 21 recognised that children and young people “bring unique perspectives” to inform economic and social development and environmental protection, especially given their high vulnerability “to the effects of environmental degradation”. This recognition has not resulted in sustained action to ensure our children inherit a liveable world.

Children are often excluded from the social, economic and environmental decision-making process, despite having the most to lose from decisions that prioritise short-term economic gain over long term sustainability. Our planet is reaching the limits of its ecological carrying capacity. It is clear that we cannot continue to consume resources with impunity. More sustainable approaches to development need to be implemented, with a particular focus on the poor and marginalised.

At Rio+20, Save the Children is urging policy makers to listen to the perspective of children and to prioritise their needs; to focus on equity and environmentally sustainable pro-poor growth.  Our leaders are too often driven by political cycles. We need to help them lift their sights beyond the next election – to help them take a long term view and commit to making development truly sustainable. Rio+20 could be a turning point for our planet, or it could be just another waste of time and effort. The key question decision makers should keep in their minds this week is: is the future we want for our children the future we are giving them?

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