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An Environmental Ultimatum

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By Corazon Miller

This side of the millennium has seen its fair share of green placard waving, so much so that many have become immune to the call of the environment.

But even here in New Zealand, with our vast expanse of green pastures and huge spreads of marine environment, there are problems left over from generations of slow action.

One New Zealand teenager has taken matters into her own hands; challenging the global community to step up and protect the planet from further environmental and economic decay. At this year’s United Nations conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Wellingtonian Brittany Trilford gave an impassioned speech for change in front of some 140 delegates.

The 17-year-old told the leaders to think why they were there; “Why are you here and what can you do here? I would like you to ask yourselves: are you here to save face? Or are you here to save us?”

As Brittany concluded her speech she delivered an ultimatum to those listening; “You have 72 hours to decide the fate of your children – my children’s children and I start the clock now.”

The conference commonly called Rio+20 was held over three days from June 20 – 22 and was the place where governments, international institutions and NGOs hoped to generate change; forming measures to reduce poverty, promote decent jobs, clean energy and a fairer use of resources.

Broken promises
Brittany kicked off the conference by criticising the 140 leaders present for failing to live up to promises made at the first conference held in Rio 20 years ago.

“They made great promises; promises that when I read them still leave me felling hopeful. These promises are left not broken, but empty. How can that be? When all around us is the knowledge that offers us solutions, nature as a design tool offers insight into systems that are whole, complete that give life, create value, allow progress, transformation, change.”

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon himself acknowledged the world has made little progress on environmental issues since that first meeting two decades ago. “Twenty years ago, the Earth Summit put sustainable development on the global agenda. Yet let me be frank: our efforts have not lived up to the measure of the challenge,” he told delegates.

“Far too long we have behaved as though we could indefinitely, burn and consume our way to prosperity. Today we recognise that we can no longer do so.

“The old model for economic development and social advancement is broken. It is time for all of us to think globally and long term, beginning here now in Rio.”

New Zealand at Rio
New Zealand, while traditionally having a reputation for being clean and green has problems of its own. Many regard our green paddocks and blue waters as part of the status quo – but if critics are right, change may soon be afoot, and action is needed now.

World Wildlife Fund New Zealand executive director, Chris Howe says his organisation’s recent Beyond Rio report highlighted New Zealand’s poor environmental performance since the original Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago.

“While the New Zealand government has little to be proud of, we urge the New Zealand delegation at Rio+20 to be a constructive part of the negotiations and to put true environmental protection at the heart of decision-making.”

However, environment minister Amy Adams at her opening address at Rio says New Zealand is committed to safeguarding the future environment.

“New Zealand has come to Rio with a hope – that in reaffirming and renewing the world’s commitment to sustainable development we will address the future of the planet and aspirations of future generations,” she says.

As proof at by the closing of Rio+20 New Zealand had solidified its commitment to the global ocean partnership at Rio+20 and gave support to an indigenous network which was also launched at the conference.

In Adam’s speech she highlighted the range of other commitments New Zealands brought to Rio+20:

Phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies: These are said to be in the range of US $400 – $600 billion a year. Money spent on fossil fuels is money that could be spent on other sustainable development priorities, health and education.

Protecting the oceans: Sustainable management, conservation and protection of our oceans are an area that New Zealand feels deserves a more ambitious collective action. The oceans provide jobs, resources, food and impact on the global climate.

The problems
At times it is certainly easier to sit in the comfort of our first world homes without a thought as to who will be left to tidy up our mess. We can quite easily pretend the third world does not exist, poverty is a choice, climate change is a myth and rising sea-levels are fiction.

But the signs are there; our actions or lack thereof have consequences. Marine life is suffering, the water is being sullied, poverty is rampant, famines are starving nations, droughts prevail and islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean are literally drowning.

The director general of WWF International, Jim Leape says nations need to set a new direction and mindset at this year’s conference. “Over the past few years we have seen how reckless mismanagement of the world’s financial capital can wreak havoc in society and yet we are treating the Earth’s finite natural capital in a similarly dangerous way,” he says.

“Rio+20 needs to set a new course for the global economy… in order to meet the food, water and energy needs of the future.”

Director of the French humanitarian organisation Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation (CLF), Pierre Calame, echoes Jim’s sentiments, saying it has taken some time for humanity to begin to understand that we are sharing a planet that has a finite supply of natural resources.

“By the time of the first Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the global community had begun to realise humanity had the potential to destroy the planet – not by war – but simply through our way of life.

“The first decade of the 21st century has witnessed repeated failures of international negotiations.” Part of the problem Pierre says is that the big powers are often reluctant to change.”

Pierre points out the former United States president George W. Bush once said, “The US way of life is not negotiable”.  But Pierre says it should be negotiable, the big-shots need to be challenged to create radical change. He adds Rio+20 is the place where change for the better must happen. “It is a historical opportunity not to be missed.”

Small steps
As the three days of discussing, debating and formulating plans came to a close, there were no miracles but there were promising signs of change.

An outcome document, titled “The Future We Want”, formed the foundation of the global leaders’ renewed promises to change. Countries renewed their political commitment to sustainable development, agreed to establish a set of sustainable development goals and established a high-level political forum on the issue.

It called for action including; detailing how the green economy can be used as a tool to achieve sustainable development, to strengthen the UN’s Environment Programme, as well as promoting corporate sustainability, steps to assess the well-being of a country outside of the normal GDP rating strategies for financing sustainable development, a focus on gender equity and the need to engage civil society and integrate science into policy.

However critics, environmentalists and anti-poverty campaigners have blasted the document as lacking both detail and ambition, saying more definitive action is needed – now.

As young New Zealander Brittany Trilford put so succinctly without change “our future here is questionable… time is ticking”.

“We, the next generation, demand change. We demand action so that we have a future and have it guaranteed.”

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