“Two weeks to save the planet.” Thus, just thirty years ago, on June 3, 1992, the daily Geneva Journal and Lausanne Gazette was the title of the first cover article of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit.
Bringing together political leaders and non-governmental organizations from 179 countries, the UN’s main focus was on “engaging the rich and poor countries in the path of sustainable development” that is environmentally friendly and able to ensure decent living conditions for all. “The revenue that is supposed to lead humanity to these radiant future days,” wrote Special Envoy Suren Erkman, “is found in four laboriously negotiated documents: the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biodiversity, the Rio Declaration and the Agenda 21, an action plan for the 21st century. ”
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Three decades later, what can be said about this conference that is supposed to extract the great principles of a new relationship between man and his planet? “Compared to its substantive objectives, this summit is a total failure,” Dominique Bourg announced without notice. Disagreements between rich and developing countries, lobbying scams, leaks forward… Back, with the philosopher and environmentalist, on what led to the climate catastrophe we know today.
Time: In retrospect, what were the concrete contributions of the Rio Earth Summit?
Dominique Bourg: They are above all on an institutional level. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed a few months after Rio, as was the first COP [la réunion annuelle des Etats pour fixer les objectifs climatiques mondiaux] was organized in 1995, in the direct aftermath of the Earth Summit. This is important, but in reality the impact of this summit is very small.
We must remember the two main objectives that were then set. The first was to better distribute wealth on earth and combat inequality, while the second was to reduce degradation to the global environment. Where are we today? Since 1992, there has been the development of emerging countries – such as China or India – which has lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty. Nevertheless, disparities in gross domestic product between the poorest and richest countries have continued to grow, as have those between the richest and poorest people in the same country.
And what about the environmental results?
The only success of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is that it has led to the Kyoto Protocol, where the signatory industrialized countries have agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, the United States quickly withdrew from the agreement, and European countries reduced their emissions by 20%, including 8% for Kyoto, but mainly by moving their most polluting industries elsewhere.
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In thirty years, the global environment has deteriorated terribly. This is reflected in the loss of biodiversity, which is seen in the collapse of insect populations but also in the total biomass of vertebrates. Today, there are only 3% of wild animals, compared to 30% of humans and 67% of domestic animals, mainly livestock. As for greenhouse gases, emissions have simply doubled between 1992 and now. In short, since we talked about sustainable development, a flagship notion of the Rio Summit, the planet has never been so destroyed.
Agenda 21, from the Earth Summit, is still being used locally to promote sustainable development, isn’t that at least a plus?
This has led to community-level action, but unfortunately the community is quickly catching up with imported indirect emissions, which account for more than half of emissions in a country like Switzerland. The cause is to be found on the side of imported heavy carbon products, for example from China or which require the exploitation of rare earths and the reprocessing of minerals, which are entrusted to third countries. In this regard, it is interesting to read Article 3 of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed in 1992, which states that the climate should not be used as a pretext for reducing international trade. this is the crux of the matter. We see all the ambiguity of the decision makers of the time, which has not changed much today.
What was the real perception of environmental degradation in 1992? Was there already a scientific consensus on climate change?
Even though the environmental degradation was very small at the time, we were already aware of the dangerous trajectory on which we were located. Deforestation was under way, and the very rapid concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was beginning to be measured. The consensus on this issue had been strengthened in the 1980s to lead to the creation of the IPCC [le Groupe d’experts intergouvernemental sur l’évolution du climat] in 1988. The issue of soils, desertification and plastic pollution was already present. The only aspect in question in the late 1980s was the exact role of human activity in climate change, a point on which scientists now have no doubt.
At the Rio Summit, very strong dissensions were observed between developing and industrialized countries, especially around forest management. Atmospheric protection articles have also been attacked by oil-producing countries. Does that explain why we didn’t move enough after this conference?
At the time, attempts were made to reduce these dissensions by advocating the notion of sustainable development, which argued that one could have a growing GDP while protecting one’s environment, but that did not work. Today, this contradiction between rich and poor countries has shifted within countries. Many studies, for example, have shown that the phenomenon of humid heat, which makes it more difficult for sweat to evaporate to maintain its body temperature at about 37 degrees as temperatures rise, is exacerbated by deforestation and pollution. This phenomenon affects not only humans, for whom time spent outdoors is then greatly reduced, but also animals and plants. Yet countries like India and Pakistan, which have recently experienced episodes of extreme heat, are continuing on their current development trajectories.
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As for the oil-producing countries, they then showed total cynicism, even opposing any formulation that encouraged scientific research to better understand the mechanisms of the greenhouse effect. Today, the situation is all the more paradoxical as they continue to sell oil while developing solar a lot.
The United States had also refused to sign the Biodiversity Convention, just as it had subsequently withdrawn from the Kyoto Accords. What were the forces present?
To question oil was also to question all American growth and industry. In the early 1970s, Exxon paid for private studies, in addition to those of climatologists, to find out exactly what the risks of CO2 to the environment were. These were excellent and clearly showed the risk of degradation of life on earth. Not only have they done nothing, but they have invested heavily in discrediting the work of public scientists.
Switzerland had also signed a declaration, with Austria and Germany, proposing in particular the creation of a “carbon tax”… rejected thirty years later by the people…
It’s sad to say, but people care about their environment as long as it doesn’t cost them anything. Local authorities are doing better, including the canton of Geneva, which will take action to limit direct emissions from its territory. The problem is that the canton has no power over what the citizens of Geneva consume.
Shouldn’t a carbon tax be imposed on imports?
Europe is thinking about it. But above all, we need to change our economic model. Fewer objects need to be produced and pooled when they are heavily loaded with precious metals or very sophisticated. You have to consume less energy, a gamble when you see how much the Swiss population rushes on air travel, but also eat less meat, develop agroecology and stop thinking that you are realizing by accumulating material goods. Who is ready to do that today? My vision is that we will end up emitting less because we will face too much stress on resources, including food, but also on the future lack of habitability of the Earth, especially due to rising levels. seas and the proliferation of extreme weather events.
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