Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rio+20 – 20 years of Hollow Concern

From June 20-22, world leaders from different fields have congregated in the city of Rio de Janeiro for the Rio+20 Earth Summit to discuss and decide on the future of the planet. The word sustainability has been a part of common man’s lexicon for nearly the last 2 decades but the fact that nobody can still define how and what exactly does sustainable development means in the macro sense shows the micro and utilitarian approach followed by a vast majority of the masses. Coming to the issue of utility, I’ll cite an anecdote which is directly related to the point at stake here.

The other day, I was embroiled in an animated conversation with an old friend regarding the power woes in the country and the significance of individuals’ efforts to promote and expand the use of renewable energy. However, the discussion veered in the direction of a rather indirectly related issue of endangered species. And I was stunned to hear that according to him, the premise on which the objectives to initiate the efforts to preserve an endangered species should be based on the future utility or use of that species to humans. In layman terms, he explained his reasoning with the following example – In case of tigers, the question of whether to preserve the tiger in India or not should be based on whether if the tiger will not be there in the future, is it going to affect our quotidian existence in any way? (Of course the Indian tiger or cheetah, in the absolute biological sense of the word, already went extinct in the 1960s in India and the current species are only some closely genetically linked brothers/sisters of the original Indian cheetah).

However, before I tackle the question of whether the decision to save a species should be based on its future utility or not, there is a concrete body of literature available that clearly highlights the fact that if measures on war footing are not taken in the near future to save hundreds of thousands of endangered species, the entire ecological balance of the planet could be disturbed forever which will be detrimental to the survival of Homo Sapiens themselves. Marine ecosystems have been severely damaged due to excessive fishing and to a lesser extent by oil spills and dredging. Despite a target of a maximum of 4.02 billion kW days set in 2002 for the global fishing industry (kW days is defined as the engine power of fishing vessel in kilowatts multiplied by the no of days the vessel was engaged in fishing activities), fishing capacity clocked 4.4 billion kW days in 2011, nearly 10% more than the maximum limit. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is a US $23 billion industry annually which is larger than the total value of the entire Indian fishing industry (that doesn’t mean we can happily devour the fish curry in the restaurants we visit next time).  Only 7.2% of world’s territorial waters and barely 1.6% of the planet’s oceans come under maritime protection laws while as per the Global Marine Species Assessment (GMSA) Report, 20,000 marine species are currently under the scanner for fear of extinction. The permanent destruction of the Great Barrier Reef near Australia and the near extinction of the whale (courtesy a continued permission on whaling by governments like Japan which has sounded the death knell for this largest creature on Earth) are some stand out examples of the precariousness of the situation. In essence, entire fishing and marine biodiversity faces an alarming risk of permanent damage thereby destroying the entire fishing and marine industries upon which, millions living in coastal areas of the world are dependent.

Coming to land, there is absolutely no doubt that the little has been done on the ground except hollow promises since the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Total primary forest cover globally has gone down by 740 million acres (300 million hectares) in the last 20 years which is larger than the size of Argentina. Average Carbon emissions in the atmosphere, measured in parts per million (ppm) has increased from 358 ppm to 394 ppm by April 2012. The total area coming under the deserts or near desertification has increased drastically in the last century and as per latest UN estimates, the rate of desertification is only speeding up. The world’s largest desert, the Sahara in Africa, is currently expanding at a harrowing rate of 48 km/year in the southward direction gobbling up the rain forests of Central and Eastern Africa which provide employment and livelihood to nearly half the continent. More than 1.2 billion people currently are at future risk of expanding deserts which already cover close to 1/3rd of the world’s land area. The causes behind this are the usual suspects of excessive cropping, over grazing, improper irrigation and worst of all, deforestation. It is a common estimate that the entire land area of Rajasthan, Delhi and Haryana will be a desert by the end of second half of the 21st century due to the eastward and North eastward expansion of the Thar desert and the ensuing water crisis could result in nearly 2/3rds of the population without access to clean water (thankfully the entire species of the tigers will not survive to see the day to enjoy the desert safari).

Regrettably, for the past 2 decades, the efforts to tackle the trio of global warming, desertification and biodiversity loss have only been made on paper while the ground reality blatantly describes the story of gross neglect under the garb of the oft repeated term “equity under common but differentiated responsibilities”. This essentially means that the developed world will carry major responsibility for the current malaise since their actions over the last 2 centuries have been the major contributor to global warming and bio diversity loss and thus while all developing countries will be treated at par in terms of benefits and solutions applied in the future, the responsibilities to carry out these actions will mainly lie on the shoulders of the developed countries. This is nothing new but the same old rhetoric that has dragged on since the entire climate change and global warming issue came to the fore front. If Rio really wants to achieve something different and concrete, it will have to make the nations of the world sign a legally binding commitment to bring the free oceans of the world under a global authority to protect their over exploitation while at the same time, enhance technology transfer from the developed to the developing world for eco-friendly implementation of daily practices and to create prohibited areas both in water as well as across land geographies where endangered species can be preserved and protected. 

Coming back to my friends’ question of the long term utility of saving endangered species to the human race, more than half of the world’s population is dependent on non-vegetarian diets for their survival while nearly 90% of the coastal populations are dependent on fishing for subsistence. The entire leather goods industry (which I must admit should cease to exist) globally is dependent on the replenishment of land species they exploit which are fast depleting.  As per the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species which is the most comprehensive and cited list by various global organisations, more than 40% of all species on the planet are at the risk of extinction. The pharmaceutical industry is dependent on the existence of many animals, plants and marine species for maintaining their value chains in the long run. By the way, before I end, I must mention that the oft hated oil lobby was not present in person anywhere in the ongoing summit except that its presence was palpable in the entire 238 paragraph official text of the Rio+20 Summit for under the section of energy, there is a major emphasis on more renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, but then it eloquently brings what it calls "cleaner fossil fuels technologies" into the mix. Can we hear oil, Petrol, gas and coal getting patronised again?

Regrettably and alarmingly, the global community has gone nowhere when it comes to action on the ground. 190 countries, about to sign the text as the final document (which again only talks about voluntary commitments), in the last 20- years have been able to ‘acknowledge’, ‘recognise’ and express ‘deep concern’ about world’s environment crises. Thus, if no hard steps are initiated in Rio and the current farce continues, there is no doubt that we will remain the dominant species on the planet for millennia to come.   

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