The first thing that strikes you upon arriving in Rio de Janeiro is the favelas tumbling down hillsides and cliff faces. These shanty towns, made up of hundreds of discoloured boxes, cling to the sides of hills, piling on top of one another, defying gravity and seemingly held together by an aerial maze of wires and power lines.
The precarious state of these slums is a fitting backdrop to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, with the earth’s ecosystems, and the balance between economics and the environment, teetering on the edge of collapse.
In coming days world leaders, plus thousands of participants from the private sector, NGOs and governments, will gather in Rio to shape our future. They will pursue one question: how can we reduce poverty while ensuring environmental protection and advancing equity?
The event marks twenty years since the first landmark environmental summit here in Rio. You quickly realise why Rio is the perfect setting for this conference. The mix of old colonial buildings with shanty towns and unkempt modernist architecture bled with hundreds of construction sites and miles of shipping yards, complete with gigantic boats boldly marked with “Petrobras”. I imagine this is how Shanghai must have felt twenty years ago.
Rio, the city, illuminates the differences between 1992 and 2012 starkly. Rio is a growing city, both in terms of economy and population. Petrobras is the largest company in the southern hemisphere; it is also an energy company focussed primarily on oil and gas. Meanwhile everywhere you look in Rio old colonial buildings are being torn down, slums are being “pacified” and re-built, and globalised consumption patterns are becoming central to a more affluent lifestyle sought by the growing middle class.
It is reflective of the changed nature of the world economy. In 1992 there was no economic power-group of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China and arguably South Africa), whose influence in the G77 (a group of about 130 developing nations) has become the determining factor in all international environmental politics.
The demographics of the world have also changed dramatically. In 1992 the world population was 5.4 billion, today it stands at 7 billion and is still set to grow to 9 billion by 2050. The bulk of this growth is expected in Latin America and Africa; while Europe and North America can expect significant declines.
The growing wealth of these developing nations is only expected to fuel consumption and energy demands. Growth in energy demand is expected to increase at 2 per cent every year until 2050. This is sobering when you consider 80 per cent of the world’s energy still comes from non-renewable sources.
Meanwhile unchecked climate change threatens ecosystems, human safety and prosperity around the globe. Billions of people still do not have adequate food, safe drinking water or access to energy. The need for sustainable development has never been more urgent.
Overlooking Rio is the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, standing nearly a kilometre above the city. Over coming days there’ll no doubt be many here in Rio turning to the statue and praying for a miracle. After twenty years of limited success with UN bodies, conventions, treaties and institutions all set up to save us from ecological collapse, redemption at Rio is essential. The overwhelming problems we face require significant action on improving the global environment at Rio. It may be the last chance.
Like the precarious favelas, Rio shows the world on the edge and is itself at the forefront of these changes. Will this setting inspire redemption for the last twenty years of lackluster action? Or will Rio only further the global divisions industrialised nations try to protect their economies while as prosperous, but unsustainable, economic development elsewhere steamrolls ahead?
By Tim Hall, photo by Linh Do.