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Are we sustainable?
As the Rio+20 conference closes, radical change remains necessary, experts tell Al Jazeera.
Last Modified: 22 Jun 2012 15:30
Renewable energy is helping in countries such as Pakistan, where power outages are common in some areas [EPA]


Hopeful rhetoric had preceded the Rio+20 UN Conference on sustainability.

World leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, NGOs, the private sector and other groups met in an attempt to find ways to reduce poverty and increase social equity while ensuring environmental protection.

But they have their work cut out for them.

Resource wars, global warming-driven extreme weather events, poverty, and the disparity between poor and rich are at all time highs and escalating.

Researchers told Al Jazeera they believe the solution lies in localising food production, transportation, and water issues. But can this be accomplished on a global level?

In-depth coverage of the COP17 in Durban, South Africa

Say 'no' to oil

By way of example of one resource, water, the crisis confronting us is clear.

Nearly one-fifth of the world's population (around 1.2bn people) live in areas of physical scarcity of water, with another half a billion people approaching this situation, according to the UN.

Meanwhile, another 1.6bn people, nearly one quarter of the world's population, face economic water shortages. Current projections show that by 2025, 1.8bn people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the total global population could be living under water-stressed conditions.

By 2030, almost half the world's population will be living in areas of high water stress.

Many scientists blame the worsening water crisis on global warming, causing many experts to push for an economy not based on fossil fuels.

"We have to get off fossil fuels as quickly as we can both for environmental and economic reasons," Richard Heinberg, author of ten books related to peak oil and its impact on our economic, food, and transportation systems, told Al Jazeera. "The way it's usually framed is 'we want to continue producing more energy to fuel more economic growth', but that's not what we need. If we're going to have sustainability, the first thing we have to think about is reducing global consumption 30 per cent over the next 20 years."

Oxfam's Chief Executive in Great Britain, Barbara Stocking, told Al Jazeera that lowering fossil fuel use is also one of the goals of her organisation.

"We have to do something to reduce fossil fuel use and lower the atmospheric CO2 concentration," she said. "We are looking for a way to create a safer world, so that we live within the planet's boundaries."

Rob Hopkins, the originator of the Transition Town concept that promotes community-driven responses to the sustainability crisis, offered another solution.

"We need to stop subsidising the fossil fuel industry, which still gets massive subsidies from governments."

Water and local resiliency

Heinberg, a Post Carbon Institute Fellow, said that the fact that so much of our water was used for irrigation was the main issue to be addressed to solve the water crisis.

"We need agriculture reform, and we need to be building top soil and growing crop varieties that are drought resistant," he added. "That's the only way we'll be able to reduce the amount of water we use in irrigation, along with reclaiming waste water where possible. This gets back to our energy systems, so we use water to produce energy and use energy to move water, so making both of those more efficient is more important."

Hopkins told Al Jazeera that community resilience is his primary concern.

Many experts believe the ability of communities to grow their own food will become essential in the future [EPA]

"How resilient are our cities and economies to the economic turbulence that we are increasingly moving into, along with energy price fluctuations," he asked. "How can cities generate more of their own food and energy? How can they rely less on long supply chains? We need to see community resilience as economic development."

Hopkins, who also teaches permaculture and natural building techniques, said that wind, solar, and biomass are energy sources we should be expanding, but that there is still no combination of renewable energy sources that could come close to allowing us to live "in this wasteful way we have been living".

Like Feinberg, Hopkins is calling for massive energy use reductions, "Up to 50 per cent," and said we could accomplish much of this through localisation.

"The UK currently exports 1.5 million kilos of potatoes to Germany each year, and imports 1.5 million kilos of potatoes from Germany," he said. "Maybe we can stop that and they can just email each other the recipes."

Food security

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food security for the planet's millions of hungry and underfed people is an issue of inadequate access.

In a recent report [PDF], the FAO argues that the "only way to ensure [global] food security is by creating decent jobs, paying better wages, giving the world's hungry access to more productive assets and distributing income in a more equitable way".

The report, Towards The Future We Want, calls for a "transition to sustainable agriculture" and said that would entail world governments making "fundamental changes in the governance of food and agriculture and an equitable sharing of the transition costs and benefits".

Stocking, from Oxfam, sees the situation similarly.

"Food security is key, especially for poorer countries," she explained. "People and countries must invest in local agriculture, what we call the 'small holders', and co-ops, so they can purchase their own supplies and be able to sell back into markets."

She sees that as the best way towards a resilient food system, as well as a way to provide local communities the means and infrastructure to become more resilient themselves.

Hopkins takes it a step further.

"Infrastructure has to be owned by local communities who benefit from it," he explained. "In Germany and Denmark we see areas with 50 per cent community ownership, but here in the UK it's three per cent."

A document vs real change

The Rio+20 gathering, which took place this week, was the fourth major summit on sustainable development since 1972, and aimed only to "result in a focused political document", according to the conference website.

But even producing a document may prove too high a goal for the conference, as disagreements began weeks before leaders even arrived.

"After four months of talks on the so-called zero draft outcome document, the Rio+20 talks are stuck at zero," said Antonio Hill of Oxfam, on the fact that the UN preparatory committee failed to reach consensus on a global plan of action.

Stocking believes major world powers that continue to act as barriers to serious discussions about how to resolve the climate crisis must be shown that making dramatic and positive changes are in their own interests.

"It's the way of the future," she said. "It's also good for their economy. And if they don't start making the necessary changes now, they are at risk of being left behind."

Stocking said she intended to make the most of the conference.

"As far as Rio+20 goes, we are seeing it in the context of 2015, because that is the year we get a new set of climate goals. Rio begins this setting of the agenda, so we're looking at Rio as a way to set the goal for a safe and just world for humanity."

Only one planet

But spiralling global population and over-consumption continue to threaten the future health of the planet, according to a recent survey of the Earth's health.

The environmental conservation charity, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), recently released a report that said the demand on natural resources has become unsustainable and is putting "tremendous pressure" on the planet's biodiversity.

"We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal," said Jim Leape, WWF international director general. "We are using 50 per cent more resources that the Earth can sustainably produce, and unless we change course, that number will grow fast - by 2030 even two planets will not be enough."

Heinberg agrees.

"We have created a civilisation that is overusing earth's resources," he warned. "Either we voluntarily reduce the scale of our consumption, or nature will do it for us."

Heinberg added that if we are going to have true sustainability, the number of human beings being added to the planet must also be addressed.

"We should discuss voluntary population decline, and that means proper family planning," he said.

Heinberg ultimately proposes a voluntary path of change away from a fossil fuel based economy towards local and resilient communities "based on human ingenuity and inventiveness".

"If we maximise those we can have a way of life agreeable to everyone," he concluded.

Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail

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