Wanted: an economy to blaze a trail in green growth
More than 130 world leaders and 50,000 supporters and hangers-on are heading to Rio de Janeiro for what is billed as the biggest-ever international conference. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, calls the gathering, 'a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make real progress towards a sustainable economy of the future'.
The meeting is Rio+20, in memory of the Earth Summit of 1992. Let's call it the Green Summit, something that might excite the popular imagination.
There is an urgent need to excite the imagination: Ban is right that the meeting deals with the most vital matters facing mankind, including the environment, climate change, food, water and energy supplies.
Planet Earth is suffering. About 900million people don't get enough food to eat each day; a billion don't have access to safe drinking water; 2.6billion lack adequate sanitation; 1.6billion live without electricity. At the other end, the income of the 500 richest people is the same as that of the poorest 416million.
Greedy governments and their powerful corporate allies are like ravenous locusts stripping the world of precious resources. The WWF's Living Planet Report says people are gobbling up the world's resources 50per cent faster than they can be replaced.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the club of rich industrial countries, said in a new report that, on current trends, by 2050 there could be four billion people living in water-stressed areas; the world will use 80per cent more energy, most of it based on fossil fuels, increasing greenhouse gas emissions by 50per cent by 2050 and temperatures by up to 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That would be a dangerously hot greenhouse.
A group of scientists from three continents claim in the journal Nature that the world is on the brink of a tipping point that could threaten the extinction of mankind. Unfortunately, such predictions are full of 'could', 'might', 'likely' and 'probably', all of which give vested interests the excuse to dig deeper to plunder the earth's resources.
There is a way forward - to promote green growth. The UN Environment Programme and the OECD have published reports forecasting that green investments would have positive impacts on employment, resources, emissions and the environment.
Even so, the plunder continues. Barbara Unmuessig, co-president of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, wrote this month that 'Neither governments nor industries really accept the fact that the earth's resources are limited and that climate change is happening fast. Nor do they challenge unabated growth as being the foremost economic objective.'
Rio+20 is wretchedly timed, with euro-zone leaders squabbling, US President Barack Obama fighting for his political life, a changing of the political guard due in China and other important countries, and too many major distracting issues, from slaughter in Syria to grim economic times everywhere.
At best, these international conferences are celebrations where leaders put their seals on a deal done after months of back-room argument. In Rio, it is proving difficult to whittle down thousands of position papers and drafts into a mealy-mouthed document that everyone can agree on but which will do little to change anything.
We are running out of time. The original Rio summit took five years to get to the Kyoto Protocol, doomed from the start when the US failed to ratify its agreement. After that, things have gone from bad to worse.
Is the planet doomed? It is hard to be optimistic. One saving grace might be if a courageous leader stepped forward to inaugurate a programme of green growth, and thus blaze a trail.
The obvious places to start would be a very poor place - like Bangladesh - or a rich country that is on a plateau, like Japan, which could set an example for future green living.
Or a big metropolitan city could be the paradigm. How about Hong Kong? Could the next chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, be the progenitor of a green Hong Kong that would set an example to the world for growth, high-quality living and a diminished carbon footprint?
Kevin Rafferty is author of a 2008 book on the challenges of climate change