20 years ago, Former Prime Minister Helen Clark travelled to Rio along with other world leaders to make commitments regarding our care for the planet. Now, with Rio+20 due to take place in just a few weeks, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has assessed how well we’ve lived up to our promises.
How well do you remember 1992? Muldoon died, the cameras rolled for the first time on Shortland Street, The Exponents asked why love always does it to them. Perhaps less memorably for most of us, but arguably a touch more importantly, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro for The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development: the Earth Summit.
Heralding the dawn of a global response to global environmental problems, each nation agreed on a range of individual and collective actions, and our leaders returned to their nations with a brief case full of big green promises. A decade later, in 2002, governments gathered in Johannesburg, and again committed to achieving sustainable development.
Some progress had been made: increased prosperity, particularly in China, had helped reduce poverty by the environmental crisis had deepened. An implementation plan was agreed to get things moving.
Now, 20 years on, and with the next United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development set for next month, how well have we been doing? WWF-New Zealand has just released a comprehensive report, charting each area of agreement and what progress has been made.
It makes challenging reading. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark, now the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, attended the Johannesburg Summit and has put down the lack of progress to a lack of political will.
She argues that development has not been made mainstream in policy because governments consider the short-term outcomes too politically risky.
“There is broad agreement that, without urgent action, the world will move beyond what scientists have termed its ‘planetary boundaries,’” she said.
“Beyond that point, there is risk of irreversible and abrupt environmental change: to climate, biodiversity, the supply of freshwater, and more. Governments will be forced to act.”
Dr J Morgan Williams, Chair of WWF-New Zealand, and former New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, says:
“There is little to be proud of. Many of the problems that existed 20 years ago remain, and are often worse. Successive governments have failed to put in place the policies and mechanisms required by our Earth Summit commitments. I see this report is a wake up call for New Zealand.”
See how we have fared in the six major areas of concern:
The promises: To maintain the productivity and biodiversity of important and vulnerable marine and coastal areas by eliminating destructive fishing practices, establishing marine protected area networks, and making every effort to protect the marine environment from land-based activities. Also, to improve scientific understanding and assessment of marine and coastal ecosystems.
WWF’s verdict: The area of marine reserves grew by 67 per cent between 1995 and 2007. Nineteen seamounts have been closed to bottom trawl fishing along with 30 per cent of the Exclusive Economic Zone. New Zealand also has six marine mammal sanctuaries, covering 2,400 square kilometres. But the population estimate for Maui’s dolphin has fallen since 2006 from 111 individuals to just 55, and New Zealand sea lion numbers are now classified as ‘nationally critical’.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions:
The promises: To take the lead, along with other developed nations, in stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level to prevent dangerous climate change.
WWF’s verdict:No significant policies or measures were introduced for 14 years and the country’s greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase. The fact that emissions flattened off after 2007 is mainly due to a major drought affecting agriculture and then the subsequent recession.
The promises: to conserve and sustainably use biological resources, maintain or restore fish stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield by 2015.
WWF’s verdict: Independent research in 2008 ranked New Zealand’s fishery management regime eighth out of 53 countries assessed. But five of the eight orange roughy stocks have collapsed to below 10 per cent of unfished levels and of the 119 fish stocks for which data has been collected, 37 are known to be over-exploited. The proportion of over exploited stocks more than doubled between 2006 and 2010.
The promises: To integrate environmental and development concepts into all educational programmes for all ages, strengthen existing advisory bodies and make better use of advertising and entertainment to shape public behaviour and consumption patterns.
WWF’s verdict: The government eventually took meaningful steps on this in 2007, including a $13 million package of government spending over four years on Enviroschools and Education for Sustainability advisory services. But this funding was removed after 2008, and environmental priorities were ignored in a new strategy for tertiary education.
The promises: To conserve biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources. Also to strengthen the control of invasive alien species and significantly reduce the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.
WWF’s verdict: Legally protected land increased by 14.5 per cent between 2004-2006. The area under predator control increased by 60 per cent between 2000 and 2006. But just over half the acutely threatened habitats suffered a net loss of indigenous vegetation cover between 1996 and 2002. Over 3,800 terrestrial, freshwater and marine species are now considered threatened.
The promises: To maintain ecosystem integrity, by preserving aquatic ecosystems, including living resources, and effectively protecting them from degradation. Also to follow the principle that polluters should bear the cost of pollution.
WWF’s verdict: There have been significant declines in almost all measured water quality parameters over the last 20 years. The commitments have clearly not been met.
Aroha Te Pareake Mead was a member of the National Maori Congress delegation which attended the Earth Summit 20 years ago. Here she gives her thoughts on our progress.
Have your say:
We’re running a poll to guage readers’ opinions on how this country has met, or failed to meet, the challenge set in Rio 20 years ago.
By Andy Kenworthy