Serie “Rio 92 what did it lead to? Rio +20 what will it lead to?”

Posted on 01 June 2012
Entrevista Profesor José Goldemberg
© Foto cedida por el entrevistado
Interview Professor José Goldemberg, Brazilian physicist

Renowned Brazilian physicist José Goldemberg, 84, was Brazil’s Secretary for the Environment attached to the Presidency of the Republic when Brazil hosted the Rio 92 conference. He directed all the efforts to ensure the event’s success and particularly to ensure the effective participation of countries whose economies and demographic dynamics were having (and still have) a huge impact on environmental conditions throughout the entire planet.

In a written interview, the scientist considers that the great legacy of Rio 92 and its adoption of the Agenda 21 has been the discussions it initiated for the elaboration of the Climate Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity, whose actions, he hopes, will become more incisive after the Rio +20 event. In spite of his positive expectations, Goldemberg is critical of the basic document drawn up for the new conference, which, he feels: “limits itself to reaffirming earlier decisions taken by countries or by the United Nations that have proved to be manifestly insufficient to avoid the problems being faced in the environmental area”.

In addition to having been Secretary for the Environment he is a former Minister of Education and Secretary for Science and Technology and has also held various other high-ranking posts. In his academic activities, he has dedicated much of his career to research in the fields of nuclear physics , energy, energy planning and innovative biomass utilization. José Goldemberg’s outstanding contributions in those various fields have been formally recognised in the form of various awards he has received, among them, the Asahi Glass Foundation’s Blue Planet Award in 2008. The text that follows is an unabridged version of the interview.

What were you involved with at the time of the Earth Summit? Do you recall anything that marked that conference?

I was Environment Secretary for the Presidency, so in practice I was doubling as the Minister of the Environment, with her current mandate, and as Secretary of Science and Technology. From Brazil’s standpoint, the most remarkable aspect of the Earth Summit was the engagement of the President’s Office in the preparations for the Conference.

An example of this engagement was when the President charged me with the mission to travel to the United States, India and China to convince the Heads of State of the importance of the Conference and of their presence in Rio, which actually happened in the end.

In your opinion, what countries participated more prominently in the Earth Summit? What was the participation of Latin American countries like?

The countries that took part in the preparations for the conference were mostly the EU countries and Japan. The United States had an important role, but not a steady one. The participation of other Latin American countries was small.

What have been the main legacies of the Earth Summit?

The adoption of the Conventions on Climate and Biodiversity, and Agenda 21. After being ratified by the signatory countries these Conventions became established laws and set obligations for these countries. In the case of the Climate Convention, it was quickly ratified and entered into force, followed shortly by the Kyoto Conference, which adopted the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, setting targets and deadlines for reducing emissions of the main gases responsible for global warming. The Protocol was not ratified by the United States, but even so it entered into force in 2005 and was implemented by European countries. The Clean Development Mechanism, which benefits developing countries like Brazil, also yielded good results.

The Biodiversity Convention [Convention on Biological Diversity] took longer to be implemented and the first resulting protocol was only adopted in 2009. The United States did not ratify this Convention.

Despite not being a legally binding Convention, Agenda 21 was still of great influence because thousands of mayors in many countries adopted it as a guideline for sustainable development in the areas of sanitation, disposal of urban waste and air quality improvement.

Among the resolutions from the Earth Summit, in which area were there no advancements?

The Climate Convention and the Kyoto Protocol have faced many difficulties in their implementation and, consequently, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have not occured as anticipated. They continue to rise and will warm the planet by 2050 to a level which will result in substantial climate change. Stronger actions are needed in this area, particularly as emerging countries like China have become major emitters of greenhouse gases since 1992.

The Biodiversity Convention remained a rhetorical document and only after 2009, with the approval of the Nagoya Protocol, did its implementation really take off.

What should be the main outcome of Rio+20?

The main result of Rio +20 should be the strengthening of actions already agreed upon in the Conventions on Climate and Biodiversity. These actions would require more of industrialized countries, but should also contain provisions for an effective participation of developing countries, which were virtually free of obligations under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex I of the Climate Convention), and this is not realistic if we want to effectively prevent / mitigate climate change to the extent possible.

What is your opinion on the draft text for Rio+20?

The draft text for RIO +20 ("draft zero") clearly falls short of achieving these goals because it is generally limited to reaffirming earlier decisions by countries or by the United Nations that were clearly insufficient to prevent the environmental challenges we face today.

The only new idea in the draft text is that it promotes actions toward a "green economy", which the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) proposed and is based on the rational use of natural resources, a reduction in the use of fossil fuels and increased use of renewable energy sources. Even so, "draft zero" is only made up of appeals with no targets and timeframes to be met nor a roadmap for these actions to be portioned out among countries. That is what the Kyoto Protocol did and set an example to be followed. I think Rio +20 should establish the adoption of protocols to pave the way for the transition to a "green economy" in different countries.

How can the business sector and civil society effectively contribute to environmental conservation and sustainable development?

Once goals and timeframes for a transition to a green economy have been adopted, each business sector (for example, the steel and construction industries, agriculture and so on) would identify what actions need to be taken. For example, the steel industry would decide to gradually abandon the use of coal and would use charcoal produced in sustainably grown forests.

In the case of the household and commercial sectors, waste sorting and the use of waste to generate heat and electricity is the way ahead.

What is the role of emerging economies - like the BRICS – in impacting and providing solutions to environmental issues?

It’s a major one: the gross national product of the BRICS increased from 21 to 31 percent of global GDP in the last 30 years.

Their emissions of CO2 (the main greenhouse gas) increased from 29 to 35% over the same period and will eventually exceed the emissions of industrialized countries over the next 20 years.

What is the feasibility of creating the so-called "green economy"? Would a 'blue economy' also be important?

There is no essential difference between a "green economy" and the economy as whole and a "blue economy", for that matter. The latter focuses more on the conservation of nature (water, air and forests). A "green economy" is clearly based on the assumption that a "blue economy" is in place.

In an approach centered on citizens' access to food, water and energy, how should governments and society regard the environment? What is the solution for the future of the Amazon, Brazil and Latin America?
The problem that arises here is the conflict between how to meet the urgent and immediate needs of the population, such as access to water, food and transportation, and a longer term vision.

Meeting immediate needs poses the serious risk of failing to ensure sustainable development, that is, a lasting one. For example, cutting virgin forests to sell wood may seem a good idea in the short term as a way to ensure food for the family. It so happens that once the forest is cut it cannot be cut again and livelihood conditions disappear.

In a medium and long term perspective, what we need to do is preserve the forest and use its products in a sustainable manner.

The same is true of energy resources: for example, if we use oil (and its by-products) irrationally, the remaining reserves will not last more than 30 to 40 years. What we need here is to increase the efficiency with which oil is used so as to prolong the life of remaining reserves and gradually replace oil with renewable energy that will not run out while we are getting light from the sun.

The truth is that there is an insurmountable contradiction between development (understood as economic growth) and environmental preservation. Making them compatible is what is meant by sustainable development.
Entrevista Profesor José Goldemberg
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