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

Posted on 02 June 2012
Thomas Lovejoy
© Foto cedida por el entrevistado
Interview Thomas Lovejoy

American environmentalist Thomas Lovejoy, chair professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the George Mason University and Biodiversity president of the Heinz Center for Science Economics and the Environment has been studying the Amazon for over 40 years.

Lovejoy was in the Amazon for the first time in 1965. His years of experience in studying that biome led him to develop ideas like that of enabling developing countries to sustain conservation activities in exchange for a reduction in their external debts.

He is an enthusiast of the system of payments for environmental services and carbon compensation mechanisms like the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) and also expresses grave concern with the destruction of the biomes: if deforestation attains the level of one fifth of the Amazon, it may be irreversible.

In Brazil, Lovejoy belongs to the Curator Council of the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development (Rio de Janeiro) and has been awarded the Rio Branco Order of Merit (1988), the Grand Cross of the National Order of Scientific Merit and the Joao Pedro Cardoso medal awarded by the São Paulo State government’s Environment Department in 2011. There now follows a written interview he granted to WWF.

What were you engaged in at the time of the Rio 92 event? Can you remember any particular episode of the conference that left its mark?

I was involved as a member of the U.S. delegation and had been one of the group Tolba had invited to Nairobi to discuss what a biological diversity convention should contain, I was also active in the Forum. The negative I remember was the leaked Bill Reilly memo in Washington that resulted in the CBD not being signed by the US. I was also impressed by the engagement of Brazil in making important things happen. Most industrialized countries made important contributions.

Which countries had the most outstanding participation in the Rio 92? What was the participation of Latin American countries like?

I think most sophisticated countries were seriously engaged in making substantial progress on the issues. And there was general agreement about what the environmental challenges were

What was the main legacy resulting from the Rio 92?

The two conventions, Agenda 21 and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) were an impressive legacy. Disappointments are the small scale of assistance provided compared to the amounts envisioned, and the general failure of the UNFCC to make major progress on reduction of fossil fuel emissions and on REDD and REDD+.

Among the resolutions taken at the Rio 92 conference, has there been any particular area where no progress has been made?

On climate change the lack of progress has stalled around the “who goes first” issue when in fact there is no time to fiddle around. On biodiversity there was so much fuss around access and benefit sharing that conservation progress was put in second place. The soaring extinction rates (see the Third Global Biodiversity Outlook) are largely a consequence of the slow start.

What should be the main result of the Rio+20?

Ambitious but achievable energy goals. A clear approach on green economics that nations can take up rapidly. If not global governance than a way for a mosaic of regional and national measure to add up to significant progress. And I would add a widespread recognition that the planet works as a biophysical system and must be managed as such.

What is your opinion regarding the basic text for the Rio+20?

The Global energy targets are quite laudable and doable. The Green economy agenda is quite important. It is not clear what may happen in Global governance. Biodiversity is virtually absent in any direct way. Overall the proposed steps are still insufficient in scale relative to the problems.

How can the corporate sector and civil society contribute towards conservation of the environment and sustainable development?

I do not have a lot to suggest specifically, but beyond what the corporations may do in terms of the sustainability of their own operations, they can engage in collaborative work with civil society which basically has the relevant expertise.

What is the role of the emergent economies like the BRICS in impacts on the environment and in the solutions for environmental issues?

The four BRIC countries are each quite different in their development trajectories and their consequent approach to sustainability. Brazil is in a quite special position because of its generally favourable situation on renewable energy, great store of biodiversity, excellent state of Brazilian science. One hopes at Rio + 20 that Brazil will take an energetic and positive role as it did at the Earth Summit.

To what extent is it feasible to structure a ‘green economy’? Why ‘blue economy’ is important too?

It is quite feasible to structure a “green” economy but the transition will need a great deal of political will and help. Presumably a “blue” economy refers to economic activity having a positive affect on water and hydrology. It must be continually noted that fresh water is not just a liquid it is also very important as habitat for freshwater biodiversity.

From the point of view of guaranteeing citizens’ access to food, water, and energy; how should governments and society at large be addressing the environment? What are the solutions for the future, for the Amazon, for Brazil and for Latin America?

Most of this is about having a respect for nature, defining a quality of life that is good for people and much better for the environment than is the heavy consumer approach as exemplified by the United States. The latter is a model that simply will not work in the end. It is also very important to manage the environment and human activity as a system and with integrated plans. That is as true for the Amazon as a whole as it is for individual nations. That means reviving the treat on Amazon Cooperation and taking similar regional approaches. The best measure of success will be how much of Brazil’s, the Amazon’s and South America’s biodiversity survives. Environmental impact is best measured in the end by Biological diversity.
Thomas Lovejoy
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