During a Rio+20 side event on Intergenerational Dialogue, I met a gent: Brazilian; visibly in his late sixties: there were wrinkles on his face that radiated a sense of astuteness. He told me he was at the Rio Centro for the Earth Summit in 1992 as a young, zealous activist. There was a sense of pride in his voice as his recollected his memories. This made me wonder (not without reason), if I’d be able to feel the same about being in Rio this June for the Rio+20 Conference.
Societal discourse about the environment is a relatively new phenomenon in the Sri Lankan island. Perhaps when your country is at war, when you have to live with the perpetual fear for your life; and suicide attacks and claymore bombs become words in the common vernacular; speaking of melting glaciers and rising sea levels maybe a farfetched luxury that one cannot afford. Today, several years after the conclusion of the war; the climate has yet to enter political priorities in the run up to national elections.
Sri Lanka has never been a massive carbon emitter (currently standing at a mere 0.57 metric tons per capita), and owing to its size and rate of industrial growth, would perhaps never be one in the near future. However, for a small country with increasing prejudices against the UN system; there was extra hype created around Rio+20 in Sri Lanka, or safe to say, in Colombo. But the bottom-line is that only a handful of Sri Lankans are even aware of the occurrence of Climate Change, let alone the Rio+20 process. While several English daily and weekly newspapers had occasional updates about the conference; Sinhalese/Tamil newspapers had no mention of the Earth Summit besides news features revolving around President Rajapaksha’s visit to the event. Ironically so, it is often those that aren’t aware of these issues that are victimized by them: drought stricken farmers, the unemployed, hapless fishermen among others.
Long before Rio+20; a group of Sri Lankan civil society organizations met in the coastal town of Negombo for the Sri Lanka Civil Society Dialogue on Rio+20. As the outcome document of these discussions, the Sri Lanka Civil Society Statement on Rio +20 was released. The statement echoes the sentiment that even though “Sri Lanka is not a rich developed country.” It is “moving towards the destructive track with its untamed and greedy development model.”
Colonization and Historical Justice
If there was one underlying theme in President Rajapaksha’s address in the Opening Plenary of the High Level segments of Rio+20, it is the concept of Climate Equity. “Addressing the environmental crisis should not be a burden for the developing countries alone” he said. “The developed countries, which largely contribute to the environmental crisis, cannot and should not leave the responsibility of saving the environment to developing countries, at the cost of their economic development.” Similar sentiments were echoed by Indian Premier Manmohan Singh.
When one fifth of the world population causes almost 62% of all global carbon emissions, it is only fair that the rest of the world demands for Common but Differentiated Responsibility, commonly referred to as CBDR (the direct responsibility of developed countries in global climate change as well as the ‘special needs and special circumstances of developing countries’).
Continuous demands by developing nations at climate negotiations for CBDR and climate equity are very much like those of the Occupy Movement. They highlight that the: ‘’largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases originated in developed countries’’, ‘per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low” and that ‘’ the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet social and development needs.’’
Sri Lanka as evolved through over 300 years of Colonization: first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, followed by the British. The colonial powers grabbed land belonging to locals, developed plantations in the central highlands of the island, enslaved the local populace and plundered resources for the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. After fighting the common enemy of the Colonial British, began the fights among ourselves: the LTTE declared war on the Sri Lankan state. After decades of bloodshed, the war saw its end in 2009. Now Sri Lanka is slowly moving along the path of development. The people of Sri Lanka yearn for development and after all these years they surely deserve it. Developed nations which have long exhausted their share of emissions, need to recognize the right to development of their developing counterparts. However, most developed countries do not accept this concept calling it backward and unpractical.
With much effort by the G77 and China, CBDR, which was an original outcome of the Earth Summit in 1992 was retained in this year’s text. The commitment to CBDR was ‘reaffirmed’ in clause 15 and ‘underscored’ in clause 190. However, industrialized developing economies; especially those such as the BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and major crude oil exporters should not hide behind a shield of CBDR and equity. Economic development should always be sustainable.
What is as important as upholding the principle of equity within multilateral diplomatic channels, is that equity is ensured within our nations. The Civil Society Statement describes that in Sri Lanka ‘about 23% of the population lives below the 1.25 USD poverty line. Growing disparity among the Sri Lankan society is visible while it is slowly moving towards” middle income status.
In a classic example of how practices that work in stable economies, sometimes cannot be adopted in developing nations; in Nigeria, where the majority of the population lives on less than 1 dollar a day; fuel prices went up drastically following the introduction of the green economic policy of eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. This resulted in nationwide protests in the streets of Lagos and around the country. The government was quick to restore the subsidy.
The Lankan Civil Society Statement went on to prophetically state that “the political leadership is not ready to tell their people that they must change and cut down resource consumption, due to the fear of losing power.” These words became a reality at the Rio Centro during Rio+20. Prior to the Earth Summit in 1992 George H. W. Bush said “the American way of life is not negotiable.” Things haven’t drastically changed since. Though not expressed explicitly actions of negotiators of nations which contribute to global carbon emissions in massive scales suggested that they share similar sentiments.
There hasn’t been an assessment of the environmental costs of the war that was fought for far too long. But it is time the State declared war on climate change and took necessary steps to not only conserve the natural environment; but also emerge as a global advocate of sustainable development and a mouth piece of concerns of island nations. Rio+20 has let us down, however, we need to ensure that our elected representatives act in our best interest. Tax payers’ dividends should not be used to fund our death and the destruction of our planet. It is our right; and responsibility to hold them accountable.
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.