Following the Copenhagen talks, the former President of Asia’s smallest country- the Maldives emerged as a spokesman for small island states affected by rising sea levels. What followed next was phenomenal. From underwater publicity stunts to his documentary film ‘the Island President’ President Nasheed saw a sudden rise to a pop star-like status within the global environmental movement. However, since Nasheed was ousted from Presidency recently in an alleged ‘coup’ these efforts have lost momentum. As a Sri Lankan climate activist I’d like to see Sri Lanka as a prospective global advocate of Climate Change and Sustainable Development. After all, President Rajapaksha is as much an ‘Island President’ as much as President Nasheed was.
Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Environment is reportedly pursuing active preparations for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, commonly known as Rio+20. It is learnt that President Rajapaksha will be visiting Brazil himself joining some 130 world leaders to attend the High Level Segments of the summit which many term is the most important global conference of this decade. Post-war Sri Lanka should seize Rio+20 as an opportunity (and not a threat) for the ongoing development agenda of the government.
Green Jobs vs. Youth Unemployment
Youth unemployment in Sri Lanka is soaring: standing, nearly at a whopping 20%. More still, are underemployed. Central to the discussions in Rio is the idea of a Green Economy. Is the concept of Green jobs compatible with the Sri Lankan status quo? Would introducing Green Jobs cost the Sri Lankan economy more and more jobs? Many argue that greening the job market will only adding extra pressure on young school-leavers and undergraduates that are already under enough pressure by growing demands for soft-skills.
Green Jobs advocates, however, point out that, the hard work of decarbonizing economy will actually create hundreds of new jobs, in addition to sprouting up jobs in new technological fields such as alternative energy. They stress that low-carbon, climate resilient, environmentally friendly jobs, like all things Green, is not a mere doable, but rather a need of the day.
Fossil Fuel Subsides
Sri Lanka’s submission to the United Nations as its expected outcome from Rio+20 says “promotion of renewable energy sources as opposed to fossil fuel based energy is the better solution for the increasing energy demand and as a climate change mitigation measure. Potential for wind, biomass and solar energy development is significant in Sri Lanka. …It is necessary to develop the innovative investment plans to effectively develop potential renewable energy sources in the country.” Fossil fuels still amount to almost half of the countries’ fuel consumption. In the status quo, while fuel prices have sky rocketed; this was resulted by fluctuations in global prices. This hasn’t resulted in a considerable drop in consumers of fossil energy.
The impacts of fuel hikes aren’t necessarily negative when coupled with alternative ventures such as improvements in the system of public transport and the redistribution of funds collected through price hikes among the vulnerable of populations.
“As an emerging economy, the challenge for Sri Lanka is to achieve sustainable high economic growth with greater equity, whilst integrating into the process of globalization, achieving permanent peace and rehabilitating and reconstructing the war affected areas. A sustainable high level of economic growth must be ensured without causing irreversible damage to the environment… Sri Lanka needs to accelerate economic growth in order to meet the rising expectations of a growing population, about a quarter of which is still below the poverty line” The document goes on to suggest that the government will make a large push for what it terms ‘climate equity at the upcoming summit.
Whilst not downplaying the crucial aspects of international climate justice that need to be addressed, Climate Justice also refers to what happens within nations.
Even though our achievements in improving social conditions, health and education and the Millennium Development Goals are encouraging, we should focus inequalities that exist in our society. With its favela slum areas and large departmental stores, where better could one discuss inequality; than Rio de Janeiro?
As “a tropical island is prone to natural disasters and climate induced risks such as sea level rise, extended droughts, increased floods and landslides and changes in the biodiversity” these conspicuous disparities are apparent during natural disasters. When disasters strike, it’s the poor that is predominantly affected: at least in most cases. This is partly because the poor reside in areas which are more vulnerable and prone to disasters, such as the coastal belt.
There is very little reference in the ongoing discussions for the outcome document of Rio+20 on financing, technology transfers or funding. With the rest of the G77, we should push for more subsidies “external assistance for technical, financial and skilled human capital for country driven priorities to integrate the various development scenarios, social and environment related concerns together in the country.”
If our actions at Rio+20 are too little, it will surely be too late.
About the authorSenel Wanniarachchi
Senel is a Sri Lankan activist tracking climate issues in South Asia and beyond. He's a trained journalist, columnist, radio news reporter, editor, student, and a Rio+20 Fellow.