The Future We Want?

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Vol. XLIX No. 1 & 2 2012

Just in time for Rio+20, this special double issue looks at the objectives and visions of this landmark conference, and includes essays on bringing star power to earth, on sustainable energy for all, and on the need for a positive negotiating vision.

In June of this year, world leaders will gather for Rio+20 with the objective of securing renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assessing progress and remaining gaps in implementation, and addressing new and emerging challenges.

Sustainable development is more critical now than ever. We face increasing income inequalities within and between States. Over 1.4 billion people continue to live in extreme poverty while resource depletion and climate change impacts continue to threaten development.

The Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was completed in 2007 stated that: "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level."

Sustainable development is a core objective for the United Nations family. Through their many and varied activities, all UN organizations contribute to sustainable development in one way or another—through economic development, poverty alleviation, healthcare, peacebuilding, infrastructure support, or environmental protection.

Energy powers human progress. From generating employment to creating economic competitiveness, from strengthening security to empowering women, energy is the great uniter. It cuts across all sectors and lies at the heart of all countries' core interests. Now, more than ever, the world needs to ensure that the benefits of modern energy are available to all and that energy is provided as cleanly and efficiently as possible.

Approximately 925 million people are suffering from hunger. We cannot call development sustainable if one out of every seven persons is left behind. At the same time there is hunger, which is senseless in a world that already produces enough food to feed everyone. Hundreds of millions more suffer from obesity and related medical problems.

Four years ago, the UN Chronicle offered me a forum to propose, and give reasons for, the proclamation of an annual International Widows' Day. That idea has become reality with the United Nations General Assembly declaring 23 June as International Widows' Day.

Historically, flooding has invoked and spurred an altogether different social and political imagination, in which seasonal inundations have been celebrated for their ecologically renewing and economically beneficial properties. The regular flooding by the silt-laden waters of the Nile, for example, has long been recognized for having sustained and enabled Egypt's ancient civilization of the Pharaohs.

Women are making their voices heard and are fighting to ensure that Rio+20 marks real progress for all people. A successful Rio+20 will enhance women's rights and their access to and control over resources and decision making spheres.

Water is ubiquitous: it is essential for all forms of life and virtually all economic activities. The United Nations has declared that a human right exists for reliable access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation which, along with other domestic purposes, accounts for about 7 to 10 per cent of all water use.

The cities of the world's emerging economies are increasingly drivers of global prosperity while the planet's resources are fast depleting. It is, therefore, more critical than ever that Member States and United Nations agencies commit themselves to realize the goal of sustainable urbanization as a key lever for development.

We live in the Anthropocene in which humans have become a major force shaping the environment. Rising incomes and reduced poverty have coincided with the growing demand for goods and services, such as food and energy, which in turn has increased the pressure on natural resources and ecosystems leading to their over-exploitation and degradation. Climate change adds to this predicament, as several climate adaptation and mitigation measures such as irrigation, desalination, or biofuels, are also resource intensive.

The overarching question is: what can the world 's Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) expect from the historic gathering in Rio de Janeiro this June?

Although the term food security was coined only 16 years ago, humanity has been striving against famine and hunger since ancient times. Agreement at the 1996 World Food Summit, based on the concept that food security exists "when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life", gave a new vision to efforts against hunger and malnutrition.

Twenty years after the 1992 landmark Earth Summit, the world is getting prepared for another conference of the same magnitude, hopefully with increased positive results. Building on commitments adopted by the international community over the last two decades, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development -- Rio+20 -- should pave the way for the launch of a reinvigorated sustainable development agenda -- one that takes into account the complex nature of the root causes of poverty which lie at the core of the devastating effects of environmental degradation, as well as the cross-cutting nature of this issue that it is embedded in almost every economic and social activity of mankind.

Societies must find a way to stop the rapid growth in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to avoid a disastrous future for our planet. As the greatest contributor to global warming, CO2 is the natural focus of current climate negotiations. Unfortunately, one of the very properties that makes CO2 so problematic—the long time it stays in the atmosphere—creates high barriers to efforts aimed at reducing its emissions.

As the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote: "[Society is] a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." Society is not, as it has become, a game of political horse-trading between the ruling party and the opposition which tries to court capricious swing voters.

In the context of the United Nations work on sustainable development, including the June 2012 Rio+20 Conference, there has been a great deal of consultation with stakeholders but until now, not at the level of a true global conversation. In addition, design renderings -- in this case visualizations of sustainable societies -- have not been a significant element in negotiations.

The international community is threatened by a global energy crisis, climate, and ecosystem changes due to global warming, as well as water and food contamination. The whole world faces tremendous challenges in closing the gap between projected energy demand and the supply of sustainable, carbon-free, affordable energy. Today, about 80 per cent of the world's total primary energy demand is met by fossil fuel which emits significant quantities of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.