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While little has moved on sustainable development since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the topic is back on the public agenda, thanks to stronger scientific evidence of environmental degradation and its visible impacts, said Maja Göpel, 'future justice' director at the World Future Council.
The WFC is a foundation concerned about the present over-consumption of resources and seeks to defend the interests of future generations in today's policymaking. "Every generation should satisfy its needs while protecting the means of future generations to do the same," Göpel noted.
Meanwhile, a recent Eurobarometer survey shows that while 71% of Europeans agree that politics should protect future generations even if that means some sacrifices for current generations - only 48% are willing to change their own lifestyle.
"We see a lot of the typical 'why should I be first, others are far worse' reflected in those numbers, and this attitude does not help," she added. On the other hand, "a large proportion are worryingly convinced that technological innovation will fix our problems before they get too grave" and personal feelings of responsibility remain weak, she said.
This is due to "our increasingly decentralised and automated supply chains with anonymous relationships and opaque chains of consequences," which do not enable us to see the impact of our behaviour, Göpel reflected.
Meanwhile "for the poor majority of people in poor countries, environmental degradation is often a matter of survival," as they live right off the land, water and fish available to them, she noted. Only the rich can still afford not to care for the planet, while, paradoxically, "it is our consumption patterns that threaten our future," she went on.
"At the same time we are also the ones whose degree of wealth enables us to drive a change in course," Göpel added.
Göpel is concerned about the 'short-termism' that is driving today's business and policymaking and said that nothing less than a "Great Transformation" is needed, accompanied by "better transparency on the short-term versus long-term costs of our decisions today".
Given new scientific evidence on unsustainable trends, our accounting, monitoring and policymaking processes need to be revamped and current market structures urgently changed, she said, citing evidence of the high cost to society and irreversible damage to nature related to failure to protect the environment.
Such data has been highlighted by the European Environment Agency, but also by the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study and the Stern report on the economics of climate change.
Breaking free from the business-as-usual path, however, is "a hard task that will involve losers and new winners," Göpel noted, stressing the need to find the courage "to install accountability and enforcement mechanisms that actually provide our new goals with teeth".
Göpel believes that the most significant way to green consumer demand is to ensure that prices to reflect all costs - including social and environmental ones. In this regard, "transparency is key" and the only competition-neutral measure that would enable consumers to influence production, she said.
However, "we should not be fooled [into believing] that consumer choice can make our economies green" as busy citizens going about their daily lives cannot check and react to all product information. Therefore, the public sector should ensure that the right set of standards and regulations are put in place to edit out unsustainable alternatives before they reach consumers, she argues.
Ombudspersons for future generations
Göpel's biggest hope for the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit is that the world will "re-connect with the spirit of 1992 where people and planet were at the centre of attention".
"We need to wake up to the fact that all the financial wealth cannot buy back melted glaciers or collapsed oceans and that people will not live well on eating money," she said.
She hopes that Rio+20's concrete proposals will not remain at UN level only and that national and local-level mechanisms are added "for meaningful participation" of citizens in the process.
The World Future Council is promoting the creation of 'Ombudspersons for future generations' at national and local level to provide extra "institutional backup" in creating sustainable societies.
Following the example of the Future Generations Ombudsman in Hungary, such citizens' or public interest representatives should be elected by parliament and react independently to citizens' complaints regarding governmental failure to deliver sustainability, Göpel said.
She suggested that the Ombudspersons could mediate across government departments and between sectors to spread knowledge of the integrated nature of environmental, economic and social concerns.
They would also be "equipped with a mandate to stop projects and policies whose impacts are doubtful from the long-term point of view," she said.
"Today, we treat sustainable development primarily as a business case and technological fix," Göpel noted, regretting that the individual right to a healthy environment - the connection between sustainable development and human rights – had been "widely lost".
Outi Alapekkala führte das Gespräch.