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Eco Heavyweights Call for Economic Course Correction


Sunset on Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro
The sun sets on Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro during Rio+20. Photo: Brian Clark Howard


After this year’s Blue Planet Prizes were announced in the Japan Pavilion at Rio+20, the Asahi Glass Foundation held another star-studded panel to set the stage for the ongoing United Nations negotiations.

The foundation presented a 170-page paper entitled “Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act.” It was produced to commemorate 20 years of Blue Planet Prizes and was written by 20 authors, most of them former prize winners, including such thought leaders as Paul Ehrlich, James Hansen, Amory Lovins, Susan Solomon, and representatives from Conservation International and IUCN.

Laying out the central driving force behind the paper, co-author Sir Bob Watson told the audience in Rio, “Our current situation is clearly unacceptable and unsustainable.” Watson, a leading British atmospheric scientist, went on to detail a litany of the world’s problems, including that a billion people go hungry, and a billion lack access to clean water and clean energy. He added that our current view of gross domestic product (GDP) isn’t working.

“We see an achievable dream, but the current system is deeply flawed,” added Watson. “We have a chance at Rio to pull ourselves up, though there is a real question whether there is the political will.

“We absolutely must transition to a low carbon economy now,” continued Watson. “We need to eliminate subsidies for agriculture and energy that are perverting the environment.”

Watson added that we need to increase investment in research into clean technologies to “break the link between production and consumption and environmental destruction. This would raise living standards around the world, but we must also recognize the finite limits of the planet, and we have to get the economics right.”

Watson said we need to replace our current model for GDP with a system that recognizes five forms of capital: built, financial, natural, human, and social. He added, “Sustainability must be intertwined within government, like DNA, and not separated into different silos… Failure to act will impoverish current and future generations.”

Jose Goldemberg, another co-author of the Asahi Glass paper, pointed out that 92% of the world’s commercially produced energy comes from fossil fuels (according to 2008 data). Goldemberg, who studies the nexus of energy and the environment at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, said, “Developing countries have the opportunity to leapfrog the developed and use more efficient technologies.”

Goldemberg pointed to an example in his own country, noting that Brazilians now get half of their fuel for transportation from ethanol made domestically from sugarcane waste material.

Goldemberg also presented a chart that showed the amount of energy used for a unit of GDP tends to decrease dramatically over time as countries get more industrialized. This was the case for the U.S., Russia, Japan, and others, and it is already happening for China. Goldemberg explained that as countries develop, they learn how to use energy more efficiently. “This is room for hope,” he said. “You can accelerate that.”

Goldemberg said the energy component, article 70, of the United Nations’ zero draft for Rio+20, are achievable. “But without timetables we don’t do it,” he added. “There is a movement to water them down, but there are hopes things will improve.”

Russell Mittermeier of Conservation International, a co-author on the paper, told the audience that he was excited to be back in Brazil, since he has spent a lot of time in the country studying primates over the past 40 years. He showed some colorful slides of iconic Brazilian monkeys like the golden lion tamarin, adding that he hopes one will be chosen as the symbol for the upcoming Rio Olympics in 2016.

Mittermeier said biodiversity is foundational for life on our planet. He said current estimates put the number of species between 5 and 30 million, though only 1.8 to 1.9 million have been described.

He also pointed out that many of those species are under assault, most seriously by the expansion of industrialized agribusiness in tropical countries, but also by the bushmeat trade, big dams, over harvesting, invasive species, and climate change. Nearly a third of the world’s primate species are endangered or threatened, Mittermeier pointed out.

Mittermeier said we have tools that we know work to safeguard biodiversity, including establishing protected areas and helping indigenous people protect their lands. He added that many biodiversity hotspots are also important places for human cultures. In fact, 73.7% of human languages, many of which are disappearing, are spoken in high biodiversity areas.

“Renewable natural capital needs to be central to sustainable development: if nothing else comes out of Rio [that will still be an achievement],” Mittermeier said. He added that Brazil, the host nation of Rio+20, is also an important piece of the puzzle. Brazil is one of the two “superpowers” when it comes to biodiversity (the other being Indonesia), and it is also rapidly developing.

Watson added that to make agriculture more sustainable, farmers need better access to markets and information, including information on the importance of healthy ecosystems. He said the world also needs to get a handle on food waste; 30 to 40% of food is wasted before it gets to market in developing countries, and that much is wasted after market in developed countries.

Mittermeier pointed out that he doesn’t always see progress on these issues reaching into the far corners of the tropics, which can be a problem because so much of biodiversity protection takes place at the local level.

But he added that he is a “pathological optimist.” Mittermeier said, “You have to be in this business or you get dragged down or set yourself up for failure.”


Brian Clark Howard is on location at Rio+20. Follow updates here.

Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.