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Rio+20: ensuring a better life for all, by Ida Auken and Ashok Khosla

The upcoming Rio+20 conference will challenge heads of state to set a long-lasting course that creates a better future for every citizen on this planet that we all share.

The common foundation and precondition for all aspirations and for the economic development everyone desires are our natural resources. This is as true for the poor subsistence farmer in a developing country as it is for the well-off entrepreneur in an industrial one.

The heads of state who gather at Rio de Janeiro in June will have the chance of a lifetime to define pathways and set milestones to ensure that natural resources will continue to provide development and economic opportunities for all in the most equitable, efficient, and sustainable manner – for those who live in poor countries as well as those in rich ones.

For centuries, our development and economic growth has depended on an ever-increasing access to and ever-increasing extraction of natural resources, such as water, metals, minerals, fossil fuels, fish stock, arable soils, wildlife — and the depletion of our forests, soils and rivers.

Today, we depend more than ever on natural resources. All of us.  For the small scale farmer in India, access to land and fresh water for drinking and irrigation is as crucial as it ever was, and no less than it is for his distant colleague in Denmark. They have never met - probably never will - but they share a common, fundamental understanding of how lives and livelihoods depend fundamentally on natural resources.

The industrialist in Asia needs an uninterrupted supply of metal alloys to make his tractor engines and energy to cool his newly built apartment. The same goes for the windmill manufacturer in Europe. The only differences are that the energy may be used instead to heat an old house and which particular elements in the periodic table they happen to depend on for their economic activity and livelihoods.

Over the past two centuries, economic development has automatically meant more consumption of natural resources.

Worldwide, mobile phone subscriptions rose by 23,000 per cent from 1992 to 2010. This amazing technology has enabled trade and financing opportunities to flourish throughout the world.  In large parts of Africa, where infrastructure was poor or old-fashioned, decades of economic stagnation have been replaced by new economic dynamism, thanks in some measure to this innovation.  But mobile phones depend on metals, some of which are rare, and many of which see no recycling at all.

Globally, resource use has until recently grown faster than the population. By 2030, we can expect to have 3 billion middle class consumers, adding further pressures on the resource base.  Moreover, over the last century, extraction of industrial and construction minerals grew faster than the world economy, which increased by 2300 per cent during that period. With continuous improvements in extraction, processing and transport technologies, prices of traded natural resources kept falling for most of the last century. And stocks of the free resources provided by nature, such as fish and water, were more and more intensively utilized.

But this is no longer true.  Over the last decade, prices of traded resources have risen sharply, and signs of shortages, of scarcity, are appearing for more and more resources.

Perhaps the most vital of resources is water.  Water is needed for drinking, for sanitation, for agriculture, for industry.  Waterways need water for transport and the ecosystem needs water for its biogeochemical cycles.  Today, more than 800 million people do not have access to clean water, and it is estimated that by 2030, global demand for water will outstrip availability by 40 per cent.  This is a call for action to chart a new course for development and economic growth, a course leading to improved resource management for the benefit of all.

And today, less than 1 per cent of the special metals that make our mobile phones connect and the new windmills work are recycled. And all over the world, landfills are burgeoning with discarded materials and throwaway foodstuff, which through better management, could have continued to take part in improving lives and livelihoods.

But the technology and skills already exist that can make substantial improvements in the way we use resources and make them more productive to enable us to do more with less. It has been estimated that, using currently available technologies, the market potential for recycling e-waste will be USD2.9 trillion by 2030.

The fundamental question that we must now answer is: how can we ensure that nature will continue to support decent, meaningful and fulfilling lives for all, now and in the future?

This is the question that the heads of state at the Rio+20 conference must address. A question that demands ambitious decisions that will set a global course for long term responsible management of the resources that our future (and increasingly, our present) depends on.

The Rio conference is not just about protecting the environment – and not only about saving the future.  These goals cannot be achieved without substantial improvements in the lives of large numbers of people, which requires eradicating poverty and creating wealth. But this wealth and well-being must be created in (new) ways that also conserve and regenerate the life support systems on which we all so crucially depend.

People, and even more their political leaders, are creatures of habit and often fear the new because it is unfamiliar or unknown – or forgotten.

However, we believe that living in better balance with what nature has to offer will provide wonderful new opportunities for fulfilment - fulfilment that our civilization has lost touch with temporarily over the past couple of centuries in the pursuit of more material possessions.

Ida Auken is the Danish environment minister and Ashok Khosla is President of the IUCN Club of Rome and founder of Development Alternatives.

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