By: Fitrian Ardiansyah
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), being held in June in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, will undoubtedly raise a critical question about how far countries have advanced sustainable development and mitigated environmental degradation. Sustainable development, defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, was introduced in the 1987 Brundtland Report and reaffirmed 20 years ago in Rio. This is why this year’s UNCSD is also known as Rio+20, marking the 20th anniversary of one of the famous large-scale gatherings on environmental issues, the 1992 Earth Summit, which was held in the same city.
During the 1992 Earth Summit, world leaders agreed to uphold sustainable development, demonstrated by, among others, the adoption of Agenda 21, the signings of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the issuance of the Declaration of Forest Principles. Agenda 21 is a blueprint to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection at the global, national and local levels.
The CBD, signed by 150 government leaders, provides a platform to achieve sustainable development since it recognizes crucial functions and services of biodiversity and natural ecosystems that directly and indirectly support people and their needs. The Forest Principles, which focuses particularly on forest ecosystems, is the first global consensus that encourages nations to conserve, restore and manage these already fragile and threatened resources.
Another major breakthrough in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was the signing of the UNFCCC. The convention created an umbrella for global efforts to tackle the challenge posed by climate change, which is perceived as one of the biggest threats to human civilization. With the UNFCCC, nations recognize that the climate system is a shared resource and all governments and people on our planet have the responsibility to ensure its stability. Two decades have passed since the first UNCSD, yet progress toward the achievement of the objectives of the above conventions and commitments, according to many scholars, has been very slow.
In the 2010 editorial section of Wiley’s Interdisciplinary Reviews (WIREs) of Climate Change—Climate and Development, Daniel Murdiyarso of the Center for International Forestry Research argued that global programs and actions to achieve safe drinking water, improved health and reduced mortality, food security and reduced hunger, and environment sustainability – as also reflected in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – fell very short toward their targets. When commenting about the MDGs in 2008, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said: “We have made important progress toward all eight goals, but we are not on track to fulfill our commitments.”
With regard to food security and the use of land and water, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, reported in 2011 that although agricultural production has as much as tripled due to significant increases in the yield of major crops, global achievements in production in some regions have been associated with degradation of land and water resources and the deterioration of related ecosystem goods and services.
The report indicated that significant biomass, carbon storage, soil health, water storage and supply, biodiversity and social and cultural services have been negatively affected by the global agriculture production from the use of 11 percent of the world’s land surface and 70 percent of all water withdrawn from aquifers, streams and lakes for crop production. In the same report, agricultural policies are viewed to have primarily benefitted farmers with productive land and access to water, bypassing the majority of small-scale producers who are still locked in a poverty trap of high vulnerability, land degradation and climatic uncertainty.
In Indonesia, a 2008 study written by Sugiyanto and Candra R Samekto of the ministries of Public Works and National Development Planning revealed that the country had already experienced water shortages in some areas during the dry season and flood events during the rainy season.
Specific water issues that Indonesia faces, as described in this study, include in imbalance between supply and demand in a spatial and temporal perspective and degraded river basins. For instance, increasing water demand – the total water needs of the country was 112.3 billion cubic meters in 2003 and approximately 117.7 billion cubic meters in 2009 – combined with limited water availability will certainly aggravate the water scarcity problem and trigger water conflict.
Biodiversity is also under threat. In the 2010 State of the Planet’s Biodiversity, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) provided gloomy facts. Species extinction is a natural part of Earth's evolution, the reported noted, but during the past 100 years humans have increased the extinction rate by at least 100 times compared to the natural rate.
The report stated that virtually all of Earth's ecosystems have been dramatically transformed through human actions; for example, 35 percent of mangroves and 20 percent of coral reefs have been lost. The report further argued that important ecosystems continue to be converted for agricultural and other uses at a constant pace during at least the past century.
In the 2010 State of Biodiversity of Asia and the Pacific, UNEP ranked Indonesia second after Australia as having the most threatened plant and animal species in the region. This is due to, among other things, high rates of fragmentation and net loss of forests that have continued in many countries in Southeast Asia between 2000 and 2009.
Still, 20 years after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, it is not all doom and gloom for the Earth and its people. Increasing collaborative works among state and non-state actors or between businesses and nongovernmental organizations have brought about gradual but important changes toward achieving sustainable development.
The development and application of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – a pioneering certification scheme for forest products harvested based on strict environmental, social and economic criteria – is an example of a concrete step forward from the 1992 Forest Principles. Under the FSC, more than 130 million hectares of forest and 8.5 percent of forest products in international trade are now certified, allowing important reforms in the relevant chains of custody and behavioral changes of end consumers. Other forest certification schemes have also been developed.
A similar case can be argued about the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a certification scheme for wild-caught seafood. To date, this scheme has produced more than 100 MSC-certified fisheries and 7,000 certified products available worldwide.
When it comes to the protection of large-scale threatened biodiversity and ecosystems, a multi-partners work that launched a 10-year initiative to preserve 12 percent, or 60 million hectares, of the Brazilian Amazon under the Amazon Region Protected Area can be used as a showcase. The protected area and other similar efforts in the Amazon are the world’s largest in situ conservation schemes, creating more than 30 million hectares of protected areas, ensuring further protection and improved management of 80 percent of the Amazon’s original forest and establishing a $29 million conservation fund.
Similar efforts have taken place in the Central Africa and Southeast Asia regions, such as the adoption of the Yaoundé Declaration (resulting in the protection and sustainable management of more than 10 percent of the Congo forest), and the creation of the Heart of Borneo (conservation and sustainable management of 22 million hectares of forest and terrestrial ecosystems).
In marine areas, comparable efforts have been undertaken through the Coral Triangle Initiative, a multilateral partnership of six countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste) formed in 2009 to address the urgent threats facing the coastal and marine resources of one of the most biologically diverse and ecologically rich regions on Earth.
Such progress, however, can only be further continued if existing and future threats, particularly from unsustainable land use and marine activities, are mitigated and important enabling conditions are improved, namely good economic policies that create positive incentives, good governance, clear land tenure and environmentally-friendly infrastructure development.
Rio+20, under one of the two themes of its upcoming conference, “Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication,” provides a venue for countries to openly and informally discuss comprehensive approaches using a green economy concept to address such threats and improve enabling conditions and propose solutions.
By using the green economy concept, it is expected that countries can be helped to transform their engines of economic growth, particularly through shifting investments – public and private, domestic and international – towards emerging green sectors and the greening of existing sectors, complemented by changes to unsustainable consumption patterns.
Such transformation is crucial to ensure sustainable development in most countries, especially developing countries including Indonesia. Without significant transformation in countries’ economies, sustainable development is likely to remain an oxymoron concept.
Indonesia, as a large developing country, has a real stake and hence is required to come up with a strong position to negotiate so that countries agree at Rio+20 for a worldwide transition toward a green economy and concrete application of sustainable development.
Fitrian Ardiansyah is a Climate and Sustainability Specialist, doctoral candidate at the Australian National University and the recipient of the Australian Leadership Award and Allison Sudradjat Award.