The year was 1992, when the Earth Summit took action to narrow the economic disparities between the North and the South, effectively promoting growth in developing countries while protecting the environment. As the guiding principle, the summit created the concept of “sustainable development.”
But in the two decades since, known as the “age of global environment,” promises have been broken and poor countries remain stuck at the bottom.
During this period, such major environmental treaties as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification have been negotiated and signed.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol to stem global warming only requires industrialized countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement was based on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” adopted for cooperation between the North and the South.
By committing themselves to their emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol, developed nations effectively agreed that they should be the first to make painful efforts to stop the rise in the Earth’s temperatures.
The wave of environmentalism probably reached its peak around 1997, when the Kyoto process was adopted. It was widely believed at that time that the North and the South had come together to launch joint and steady efforts to end global warming.
It was an era when Japan became actively involved in the development of global rules by using its international clout, supported by its economic power and huge official development assistance, which was the largest in the world.
In 2011, however, Japan’s ODA was about half of its peak in 1997.
After the United States pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, international efforts against global warming lost steam. Japan effectively followed Washington’s lead and became lukewarm about cutting its greenhouse gas emissions in the country, as indicated by its policies concerning the issue in recent years.
There has been no remarkable progress either toward the other key international goal: healthy economic growth in developing countries.
The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, adopted at the Earth Summit 2002, or Rio+10, held in South Africa, expressed the frustration felt by developing countries.
“The deep fault line that divides human society between the rich and the poor and the ever-increasing gap between the developed and developing worlds pose a major threat to global prosperity, security and stability,” the document said.
Globalization has expanded the world economy. Emerging countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa have sharply increased their economic power, but many poor countries have been left behind.
The United Nations set the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 for its campaign to eliminate poverty, particularly in the so-called least developed countries. But the conditions in these impoverished nations have not improved in any significant way.
During the past two decades, the world has been struggling to achieve both economic growth and environmental protection. But economic downturns in major industrial countries often distracted international attention away from the importance of environmental protection.
That suggests that the idea of “sustainable development” and the framework for international cooperation to pursue this goal have yet to establish themselves firmly in the international community.
There has, however, been notable progress in some areas. Two decades ago, little renewable energy was used, with solar power generation being almost zero. As various measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions have been taken, new technologies and businesses have emerged to push society toward a low-carbon future.
The slogan for Rio+20 is a “green economy,” and the conference is expected to adopt a declaration titled “The Future We Want.” There is now a clearer vision for the future our society should craft and we have various technologies to realize that vision.
The challenge for the upcoming summit is whether it can create a new wave of environmentalism by drawing lessons from both the successes and failures in global efforts to protect the well-being of the Earth during the past two decades.
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