Rio+20: ‘A Pathway for a sustainable century’ or a step in the wrong direction?

The Rio+20 summit in June saw, arguably, the most significant meetings on sustainable development since the 1992 Earth Summit in the same city. SPEAK focuses on whether the outcomes of the summit are truly progressive enough in order to affect positive sustainable development. We also take a look at the biblical mandate for campaigning to protect the environment.

The Rio+20 summit – the UN sustainable development summit – which ended on the 22nd June was billed as ‘a pathway for sustainable development’, yet leaders and NGOs alike have condemned the summit resolution (somewhat paradoxically titled The Future We Want) as insipid, a failure of leadership and generally not enough. The main criticism is that the declaration does not make firm and tangible promises that help to protect the environment and build on sustainability. Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo goes further by stating that “the leaders of the most powerful countries supported business as usual...putting private profit before people and the planet”. It’s clear that we are to demand more than just rhetoric; yet there are some reasons for optimism.

There is one specific reason for SPEAK readers to be cheerful; Nick Clegg has announced that UK businesses will now be required to report their Carbon emissions. This will surely put greater pressure on corporations to control and reduce their emissions. This is a particularly poignant moment of celebration for SPEAK as this announcement follows on from developments from the Companies Act 2006 – of which SPEAK played a role in campaigning as part of the trade justice movement. This news is not directly out of Rio, but is certainly part of the “important step forward” during the summit.

UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon invited world leaders to “join me in working for a future without hunger”, claiming that “in a world of plenty, no-one, not a single person, should go hungry”. While the agreements on how this pledge is made a reality are sparse in number and language used in the Rio Declaration has been described as ‘vague’ and ‘un-ambitious’, it is important to celebrate the fact that such important issues are not only on the agenda, but are open to discussion. There has also been criticism of the non-resolution of proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which have been left to a discussion group of 30 nations – to be concluded by September 2013. Yet, where the SDGs remain unresolved, there surely exists an opportunity to lobby and campaign for more just results?

So there are both reasons to be sceptical and hopeful, which in a strange sense, really fits with the appropriate Christian response to all this news; we are to speak up for the voiceless when the answers are not good enough (Proverbs 31:8), but remain hopeful in the truth that God practises steadfast love, justice and righteousness (Jeremiah 9:24). It is also vitally important that we remember our God given mandate to protect the environment; God instructs us to care for His creation (Genesis 2:15), remember that the land is His and trade land with according justice (Leviticus 25:23-24) and to refrain from polluting the land (Numbers 35:29).

It is clear, too, that a lack of environmental sustainability damages human lives and causes poverty. With this in mind, we should be challenged to remember that looking after the planet is not simply an issue of protecting the earth, but also protecting those who dwell in it. Father Benedict Ayoubi comments that creation’s value in God makes for a challenge to those who are “forgetting about people, especially the marginalised in society”. We need to be praying and campaigning on environmental issues because the same God who ‘made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them’ is the same God who ‘executes justice for the oppressed’ (Psalm 146:6-7).