This is our advice to any national leader: Global collaboration on sustainability would be wonderful. But short of agreements, the risks for each country posed by global resource constraints becomes ever more acute.
In other words, the need for your country to manage your supply of and demand for natural resources becomes more significant in the absence of global agreements and commitments and as global overshoot trends continue unabated. Don’t squander your future by waiting for others to act first. Nations ignore the links between resource constraints and their economies at their own peril.
We wish nations would have approached Rio+20 from that spirit. Recognizing that life for them gets easier with an agreement–that agreements are not about giving something up, but about gaining something for all. Because global agreements would make it safer and easier for everybody. And that is what the Rio+20 Earth Summit was supposed to deliver. Yet Rio+20 officially concluded Friday on a whimper, and the 49-page outcome document, The Future We Want, is being met widely with sharp criticism—even “anger and dismay,” as the Guardian newspaper put it.
With no concrete timetables, commitments, financing, or new ways to monitor sustainable development goals, many civil society groups and delegates have declared it weak and watered down—at best a collaborative document reaffirming sustainable development goals and future negotiations, pointing vaguely in the right direction; at worst a meaningless piece of paper, a waste of time, a “failure of epic proportions.” A Copenhagen 2009 (COP 15) redux, but with more at stake.
Days before its formal adoption, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered a more generous interpretation of the document: “Some member states hoped for a bolder ambitious document. I also hoped that we could have a more ambitious outcome document. But you should understand that negotiations have been very difficult and very slow because of all these conflicting interests.”
The outcome document had been torturously labored over by more than 180 national leaders in the months leading up to the summit. Certainly The Future We Want contains ample acknowledgement of the ecological limits we have reached or are approaching, such as desertification, deforestation, excess global carbon emissions, collapse of fisheries, and food and energy crises. The text even points toward some solutions and ever-elusive future progress, such as enhanced protection for the world’s oceans, future inclusion and a greater role for civil society groups, strengthening the financing, scope, and mission of the United Nations Environmental Programme, and—what many are hailing as the most positive outcome—pledges to set new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The document also seems to fully acknowledge that we are in ecological overshoot, when humanity’s demand on nature exceeds the biosphere’s supply, or Earth’s regenerative capacity.
For example, paragraph 61 reads, “We recognize that urgent action on unsustainable patterns of production and consumption where they occur remains fundamental in addressing environmental sustainability, and promoting conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems, regeneration of natural resources, and the promotion of sustained, inclusive and equitable global growth.”
Whether the positive elements of The Future We Want are backed by political will or become “merely a piece of paper” if not implemented, as Ban Ki-moon put it, it will still be up to national and local governments, finance and business leaders to make critical decisions affecting their own populations.
Global Footprint Network has this message to government representatives and other decision-makers regarding the future we want.
The future we want is one in which local and national governments and business leaders make resource limits central to their decision-making. We want a future where governments and businesses track their resource trends, helping them to assess the value of their ecological assets. We want a future where policy makers identify the risks associated with ecological deficits, and set policy that is informed by ecological reality.
The future we want is one in which we acknowledge that humanity is in ecological overshoot, using nature 52 percent more rapidly than it regenerates.
Securing a sustainable future in the 21st century means recognizing that natural resources, if managed wisely, are the new wealth of nations. If a nation hopes to remain competitive in a world of ever scarcer resources, decision-makers must incorporate ecological risk into economic and government policy. For that, they have to accurately track their supply and demand.
Indeed, paragraph 38 of the 283 paragraphs of the Rio+20 Future We Want document reads, “We recognize the need for broader measures of progress to complement GDP in order to better inform policy decisions.”
We agree. The future we want is one in which policy makers secure the sustainability of their own populations by having an accurate sense of how much food, fuel, and timber they have and how much they use.
A growing number of governments are adopting the Ecological Footprint, a resource accounting tool that measures how much nature we have and how much we use. In Brazil, the cities of Curitiba and Campo Grande and the city and state of Sao Paulo are now calculating their Footprint in partnership with WWF-Brazil and ecosSistemas. Costa Rica featured the Footprint in its 2011 State of the Nation report. Switzerland has made the Ecological Footprint an official indicator; the Philippines is on track to adopt the Footprint at the national level.
With or without global partners or a binding Rio+20 agreement with teeth, leaders who want to protect their nation’s interests will act. If you are not planning for the future you want, you may not get there. Failure to track and manage our demand for—and the supply of—Earth’s resources will increase one’s risk of a turbulent future, one in which economies are battered and struggling. Or we can build the future we want, with the resources we have.