To Rio and beyond: Africa seeks sustainable solutions – paving the path to “the future we want”

22 June 2012

Twenty years ago, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for a ground-breaking summit on environment and development.

They are meeting again this June for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, known as “Rio+20.”

The stakes for Africa are enormous.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon knocks the gavel to mark the official opening of the Conference on June 20th in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,  Masimba Tafirenyika reporting for Africa Renewal, examine the key issues that will shape the future Africans want:

It is rare for a head of government to be greeted with applause at the very beginning of a speech before the United Nations General Assembly.

But that’s what happened last September when Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley of Bhutan took the podium and signalled his intention to talk about “happiness.”

It was Bhutan that convinced the UN to adopt a resolution on “Happiness: a holistic approach to development.” The resolution commits nations to create “the necessary political, social and economic conditions to enable the pursuit of happiness by citizens within a stable environment.”

The desire of the prime minister — and of humanity — for a better future is the dominant theme for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development currently taking place in the Brazilian capital, Rio de Janeiro.

Dubbed “Rio+20” following a similar conference in the same city 20 years ago — the gathering will give participants a rare opportunity to agree on a new approach for achieving a prosperous and sustainable future.

Footing the bill

What are the issues for Africa at Rio+20?

First: poverty. In Africa, new challenges are giving rise to new diseases, worsening hunger, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and youth unemployment.

Climate change is another hot-button issue. UN studies show that Africa’s climate is warming faster than the global average, significantly compromising its development possibilities.

The continent’s low capacity to adapt threatens food and water supplies, especially in the Sahel region and in central and southern Africa.

Green economies

Another important issue is the move to green economies, which would emit less carbon and use fewer resources.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) notes the transition to green economies is being “driven by concerns about climate change, air pollution and energy security” and by a desire to create jobs in new industries.

Africa supports green economies, but is concerned that wealthy nations might use the global transition as an excuse to impose trade restrictions or not to fulfil their commitments to poor countries.

Africa is also interested in renewable energy. About 3 billion people on the planet — many of them in Africa — lack access to electricity.

They must use wood, coal or other unhealthy materials for cooking or heating homes, which exposes them to harmful smoke.

Already some African governments have adopted “smart and forward-looking” energy policies. Kenya, for example, has an ambitious green-energy programme to increase the production of energy from geothermal, wind and bio-fuel power.

‘Economies are teetering’

The challenge in Rio will be to craft measures to ensure that the poor and vulnerable benefit from economic prosperity.

A 2012 UN report compiled by a High-Level panel on Global Sustainability, “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing,” is intended to chart a new path to sustainable growth.

It warns that multiple crises across the world have made sustainable development more important than ever.

The report adds: “Economies are teetering, ecosystems are under siege, and inequality — within and between countries — is soaring,”

Advocacy groups concur. In a discussion paper for Rio+20 entitled “A Safe and Just Space for Humanity,” Oxfam, a UK charity, adds its voice.

The biggest cause of stress to the planet, says Oxfam, is excessive consumption by the wealthiest 10 per cent of the world’s population and the means by which companies produce what they buy.

While mounting concern over the state of the planet is reflected in the diagnoses contained in several reports produced by governments and civil society groups to stimulate debate in Rio, it cannot be denied that some areas have seen progress.

According to a World Bank report released in March this year, sub-Saharan Africa succeeded in reducing extreme poverty from 55.7 per cent in 2002 to 47.5 per cent in 2008.

At the global level, reports the UN, the damage to the ozone layer is declining, civil society participation in policy decisions is rising and corporations are more aware of their social responsibilities.

Additionally, technology has made information widely available and decision-making more transparent.

There is now a better understanding of the ecosystem and the use of appropriate sustainable technologies.

Retooling the global economy

Yet this progress has been insufficient to significantly reduce poverty among the world’s population of 7 billion — expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

More than a billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day and many more are facing hunger.

Also troubling is the amount of food going to waste: 222 million tonnes wasted annually by consumers in rich countries, a figure roughly equal to all the food produced in sub-Saharan Africa.

By 2030 the demand for food will have risen by 50 per cent, for energy by 45 per cent and for water by 30 per cent, according to the report of the High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability.

To retool the global economy, preserve the environment and provide equal opportunities to all, the panel lists 56 recommendations.

It proposes that prices of all goods and services reflect their true costs to people and the environment, and that new means of measuring development be created to go beyond the current measure, gross domestic product (GDP), which many economists believe has outlived its usefulness.

It further calls for the setting of “Sustainable Development Goals” to take the place of the Millennium Development Goals, which end with their deadline of 2015.

Under the theme of “the future we want,” the Rio+20 outcome document entitled “The Future We Want” outlines the principle of universal access to the essentials of life, such as water, food and energy.

Conference organizers face a difficult task in balancing the diverse views in more than 6,000 pages of contributions from UN member states, major interest groups, international organizations and other stakeholders.

The outcome document provides a blueprint on how the green economy can be used as a tool to achieve sustainable development to strengthening the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and developing a strategy for sustainable development financing.

Not everyone is happy with the outcome document. Antonio Manganella of CIDSE’s French member CCFD-Terre Solidaire believes that the text does not go to the heart of problem. “The text fails to address the responsibility of companies, especially multinational corporations, in our unsustainable economy.”

Meanwhile Africa has its own priorities… For example, Africa wants to see the Nairobi-based UNEP transformed into a specialized agency with a bigger budget and a stronger mandate.

It argues that the current global structures do not fully address the continent’s needs. Other proposals include setting up a sustainable development council and developing “tool kits” for sharing best practices.

At this point it’s not clear if Rio+20 will be remembered as a turning point or a lost opportunity.

What is obvious is that progress will require strong political will from global leaders.

When that appears, the world will have taken a significant step towards bringing happiness to present and future generations.

Africa Renewal


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