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Rio: deja vu all over again…

Written by Nicola Tokai,, 21st June, 2012:
“You have 72 hours to decide the fate of your children, my children and my children’s children. And I start the clock now.”

So said New Zealand teenager Brittany Trilford as she kicked off the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, named Rio +20 – being held two decades after the first and crucial Earth Summit.

There’s been a lot of talk about the Rio +20 summit – the world’s chance to look back on the past two decades as a planet, and to measure what we’ve achieved and what we haven’t.

The guts of the Rio Summit then and now was simply that we must move forward as a planet in a way that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The subtext is that we must live now in a way that doesn’t rip off our kids. With a growing human population programmed to hit nine billion by 2050 and climate change now thought to be approaching the point of no return in terms of our ability to make enough changes to slow it down – this conference is “do or die” time.

Scientists believe that the elephant in the room is overconsumption and population growth, and that until those issues are tackled (rich countries will have to learn to consume less, and poorer countries will need to get a handle on contraception) – then the goals of sustainable development will never be achieved.

The Future We Want declaration has raised a lot of angst because, essentially, it’s a fluff piece. The word “encourage” appears 50 times, the phrase “we will” only five; “support” is used 99 times, “must” just three. That kind of language is pretty telling.

In New Zealand, a lot has happened since the original Rio Summit. When the first Rio conference was held, just 50 kakapo were left on the planet. Fast-forward to now, and there are 126. This has taken vast dedication, technology, money and a partnership between DOC, Forest & Bird and the New Zealand Aluminium Smelter. This is a good thing, but with regard to everything else, check out WWF’s Beyond Rio report released last month.

Without well-funded large-scale predator control, we are running out of safe islands for kakapo. Around 3000 of our native species are now classified as threatened. In the past two decades, we’ve also rapidly and recklessly intensified our farming practices, particularly dairy farming, which has contributed to 96 per cent of our lowland rivers becoming unswimmable, 43 per cent of our lakes polluted, and two-thirds of our native freshwater fish programmed for extinction by 2050. We have increased our carbon emissions by 20 per cent, and we have the dubious honour of being home to the world’s rarest marine dolphin, with only 55 Maui dolphins remaining. Our New Zealand sea lions, once found all around our coastlines, have been relegated to a sub-Antarctic island, where our squid fishery is driving them to extinction within the next 23 years.

That’s all a bit depressing, BUT…there are solutions and plenty of them. There’s also a good opportunity here for New Zealand to beef up our environmental cred, and make a lot of money from it. Don’t believe me? Ask Pure Advantage. This group of some of New Zealand’s best and brightest CEOs wants NZ to walk the walk, because they know that’s our economic advantage and that’s how we can make a profit and be a prosperous nation. What we lack is political will.

What is it going to take for us as a nation to realise that we are running out of time? That for our safe future, our economy, our brand reputation, but most important our children and our children’s children, we must act now. That might mean some unpalatable changes for us.

How do you feel about living with less stuff, for example? What things do you already do to reduce your impact? Does it make a difference if nobody else is doing it? What do you reckon needs to happen to make sure future Kiwis get the same habitat we did?

Back to Brittany Trilford. The urgency of the Rio + 20 Summit and the need for political action were beautifully summed up by her when she said:

“Are you here to save face, or are you here to save us?”

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