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Where are we now with Rio+20?

By Fatin Chowdhury

June 20, 2012

Purpose of Rio+20

I have been grappling with trying to define the purpose of Rio+20. This wasn’t a question that has popped into my head my experience at Rio so far; it has been toying with my head for quite some time. I wondered, why should this thought even occur? It is quite simply an historic moment – an auspicious time to renew our commitments to protecting the environment since the 1992 Rio summits and the conferences that have followed after. Despite the courageous commitments made in the first Earth Summit, we still find ourselves with minimal successes to celebrate. In my first blog, I defined the conference by the themes of green economy and developing institutional frameworks for sustainable development. Of course, that is the case. This conference is attempting to revitalize our economy to address the emerging environmental, social, and economic challenge. It’s attempting to dissect the most complex problems our species has ever faced and world leaders are trying to propose, draft, negotiate, and reaffirm an outcome that will satisfy the needs of our world, its interconnected ecosystems, and the civil society. But this text is a compromise – it will not result in any concrete actions as it is not binding but rather a  political declaration. We will not be leaving the conference with the solution.

But that shouldn’t be the goal of this conference. Rather it is about committing to sustainable development at a personal and individual level. I continue to be amazed by the speakers and the organizations whose passion cannot be contained in the rooms – their words and actions compel me to view the world from their perspective. As I put on each lens, I stand in awe at the potential we have as humans to mobilize people to change our behaviour on a massive scale. Dialogues and conversation need to be encouraged and allow us to make informed decisions. As Jeffrey Sachs wrote yesterday, “the most important outcome in Rio … will be a global call to action.” Exposure of the root causes of the problems we face will help the public demand action on it.  He also calls for the conference to adopt a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) similar to the MDGs we currently have in order to “open the eyes of today’s youth”. I agree with him when he says that we can still achieve the Rio treaties “by putting people at the forefront of the effort.” Ultimately, we need to envision the world we want to live in and leave for future generations.

Sustainable Development Dialogues – Oceans

Yesterday morning, I attended the Sustainable Development Dialogues on Oceans where 10 experts spoke regarding the 10 recommendations under this theme. Panelists included Dr. Sylvia Earle, Dr. Jean-Michel Cousteau, Dr. Ussif Rashid Sumaila and Ms. Asha de Vos amongst others. 3 of these recommendations are going to be presented to the Heads of State but they will not have any impact on the text. In cases for all the themes, their overall impact is doubted and even their inclusion would not be sufficient for the actions necessary. Recommendation 4 – the demand for a global agreement on protecting high seas biodiversity – received 36% of the public and platform vote. Many of the speakers also mentioned this particular recommendation as among the necessary to move forward.  I find that there are two ways of looking at this situation.

Regardless of the recommendations that are put forth and their impact on the text, these dialogues highlight the threat and continue to educate people so “they can make informed decisions” as Ms. de Vos said. Alternately, public participation can be seen as insufficient as the public concerns are not being addressed by the negotiators. Benefits of participation include clear identification of problems and solutions as well as balanced decision making. However, we can see here that civil society is not acting as an equal stakeholder as the text continues to be finalized based on the political agendas of the states. The content in the dialogues and the outcome text are vastly different. Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo credits the failure of these negotiations to the “national parochialism” as the “proposals to protect the world’s oceans” are watered down to ambiguous terms and statements. So, while the public is being educated, it is not enough and these recommendations need to become actions to have any effect on our behaviour and the state of the oceans.

Throughout the dialogue, various ideas stood out. It was noted that science and technology would help expose the threats the marine ecosystems are facing. However, the excuse to wait for science to provide undeniable proof and statistics before policies are implemented is not valid – both need to be carried out simultaneously. Mechanisms need to be implemented to reduce water pollution and carbon emissions and as well mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification. Marine organisms and how they are being affected still continue to lack a comprehensive understanding because of the complexity of the systems in which they exist, which is even more reason to take action now before we do irreversible damage (which we have already in many areas). I was reminded of Alana Mitchell’s book Sea Sick where she talked about dead zones that had started appearing where no organisms lived because they had been depleted of all their nutrients and oxygen (she was one of the experts that was at my Arctic expedition in 2010). When looking at the 10 recommendations, I felt they all seemed intricately related and had a direct or indirect effect on the other – Dr. Cousteau suggested that “we need to take care of the ocean as a whole” which I strongly agree with.  Dr. Sylvia Earle’s words “the economy cannot succeed unless the environment succeeds” once again echoed the fact that there should not be a dichotomy between the economy and the environment. It is yet to be seen whether the concept of green economy can converge them successfully.

So where do we stand now ? We are heading into the plenary meetings where Heads of States will be presenting their concerns and the text will be refined and wait for approval at the end of this week. The outcome text has low expectations at this point by the public – it does not stand up to the commitments made in Rio 1992 and does not clearly work to addressing the problems with the environmental policies and  text that we continue to draft and sign without implementation.

To you, I would encourage you to continue to build your knowledge on these issues. An educated civil society can enable the public to push for change and demand their governments to change their priorities. As a Canadian, I am frustrated and shocked that the country who pioneered environmental changes is now barely audible and is repealing environmental laws to fast track economic development. As a Bangladeshi native, I am also displeased at the government’s lethargic pace of action  and worried about how the people will respond to the changes that will inevitably come their way.

Coming up: my thoughts on the Planet Ocean premier & thoughts about the side events we have been attending in addition to conference developments .

Fatin Chowdhury 
Polar Research Co-Director
Alum, Students on Ice 2010 Arctic Youth Expedition
Fatin Chowdhury currently resides in Mississauga, Ontario and is currently enrolled in his second year of Environmental Engineering at the University of Waterloo. He won the National Brita Eco-Challenge enabling him to participate in the Students On Ice Arctic 2010 Expedition. This opportunity helped him gain a deeper appreciation of the intricate factors that are contributing to current and future environmental problems. He is strongly passionate about environmental conservation and interested in finding pragmatic solutions to emerging problems. His summer internship at the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD) in Bangladesh in 2006 opened his eyes to the impact of climate change in developing nations and realize the need for international co-operation in the future. He has also served as an executive of the Peel Environemntal Youth Alliance, facilitating educational presentations and collaborating with youth on environmental initiatives.Fatin has gained valuable industry and government experience with Environment Canada developing Renewable Fuels Regulations and by working as a Project Manager at Rio Tinto Iron Ore Company of Canada. From these experiences, he has acquired insight into the obligations and responsibilities of key stakeholders in influencing market decisions. As the Vice President for Research at Engineers Without Borders Waterloo, he is passionate about international development and believes systemic change is fundamental to solving complex problems. While he has an odd sense of humour, he also enjoys delving into photography and enjoys reading the National Geographic magazine. He is very excited to be a member of the SOI Delegation and impact change on international policies at the Earth Summit.


  1. reaann says:

    This is so educational! I never knew about this before and I’m happy to learn about this

  2. Fazlur Rahman says:

    Wonderful writing. Everybody should read it.

  3. Fazlur Rahman says:

    Wonderful writing. I learnt a lot from this article.

  4. M Lutfar Rahman says:

    Excellent!!! Keep it up

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