06/22/2012 05:39 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT

At Rio+20, Canada Is a Zero, Not a Hero


The Rio+20 Summit this week in Brazil is turning out to be nothing but a stark reminder that the politicians of the world have no intention of tackling sustainability. It looks like the business of saving the world from environmental disaster is back in the hands of cities, businesses and individuals just like us. Thank goodness we appear to be wiser than our leaders.

Twenty years ago at the first Earth Summit, leaders made commitments to tackle issues like climate change, biodiversity, saving the coral reefs and so on. It looked like the world's leaders had woken up to the dangerous path we humans are treading towards an unsustainable future. But 20 years later, almost no progress has been made to keep those commitments, and many countries worked hard this time around, with Canada notably among them, to ensure that nothing was even committed to this time around. Maybe Rio+20 should be nick-named "Rio, the Zero."

Ironically, most of the issues the first Earth Summit tried to tackle have gotten much worse in the last 20 years. Almost a third of the species on Earth now face extinction, the coral reefs keep disappearing, as many as 90 per cent of the commercial fisheries are well below sustainable levels, and there are almost 200 dead zones in the ocean all over the world. Every year since the first Summit in 1992 has been warmer than that year. The rumour on the street is that many of the delegates themselves are more concerned about the challenges we face than ever and incredibly frustrated, knowing nothing will be done about it.

In 1994, two years after the first Rio Summit, I was a delegate to the UN Conference on Population and Sustainability in Cairo where I chaired the North American Environmental Caucus. Having made sweeping commitments in Rio, everyone thought now we could tackle the problem of rising population and economic sustainability with equal vigor. Over the course of the two weeks that I was there, I was inspired by the earnest people from all over the world who were actually tackling these issues on the ground, and utterly depressed by the leaders I thought would lead the way.

Mind you it's hard to lay all the blame on the leaders. As Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain once mused about tackling issues like global warming, the results of not acting will happen after you are in office while the sacrifices of acting might occur before your next election. This may help explain Canada's increasingly woeful image in international circles.

Recently I ran into Jim Flaherty at a party in Toronto and asked him what he thought would happen in Greece. After an audible sigh he said "he wished the leaders in Europe would just make the hard decisions; that is what they elect us for." But when it comes to the environment, Canada is becoming known all over the world as a country either disinterested or at times even hostile to any binding agreements that have anything to do with issues like climate, fishing and so on.

In Rio, rumour has it we worked pretty hard to make sure no binding agreement on tackling overfishing occurred. It made me ashamed to be a Canadian and I don't use those words lightly. The Maldives, a small country in the Indian Ocean with a large ocean footprint, announced it will create the world's largest marine sanctuary in the Indian Ocean -- making Canada's decade long effort to create a few tiny semi-protected reserves a national embarrassment.

But there is some good news. All over the world people are stepping up. Cities, states and local jurisdictions are taking on issues from climate change to plastic garbage with the bans on plastic bags in places from Los Angeles to Toronto (and even Fort McMurray as recent examples).

Corporations are also stepping up, even if their own self interest is a primary motivation. Walmart is on a multi-year greening campaign, and even pushing their suppliers to get greener. Unilever is pushing for marine protected areas because even people who make fish cakes know you can't sell fish cakes if the fish are gone. The Maldives, a small country in the Indian Ocean with a large ocean footprint, announced it will create the world's largest marine sanctuary in the Indian Ocean (making Canada's decade long effort to create a few tiny semi-protected reserves a national embarrassment.

On a recent flight to Halifax I sat next to a board member of a large power utility in Canada. He told me that the government had removed most of their incentives to make the power grid greener but that their company was pressing forward anyway. He said "it's just the right thing to do, and sooner or later we will need to do it."

Then there are the millions of earnest individuals and nonprofits all over the world working hard every single day to try to help us achieve our sustainable future. From two Harvard undergrads creating a soccer ball that creates electricity, to groups educating young women in the developed world (still the single best predictor of reducing population growth). All over the world there is a movement of people stepping up that Paul Hawken has termed "blessed unrest." Together, we may ultimately be the only thing that can save us from eco disaster.

I did my own little earth summit a few weeks ago with me, myself and I. At my personal summit of one, I made a number of binding commitments. Among them was a commitment to three vegetarian days a week and to even more drastically reduce my consumption of fish (even though I love fish and eat only the most sustainable species already). The truth is the oceans need my help and switching to one meatless day saves about as much carbon emissions in a year as buying a hybrid car. Maybe every family in Canada should have their own earth summit this week. Maybe if each of us made just three or four commitments, we would accomplish more this week than all the world's leaders gathered in Rio. Maybe when they see us step up, they will feel called to act.

So maybe the only that can save us are these local efforts from businesses to cities to individuals all choosing to step up. After all, someone has to do something while the people we have elected to lead us make it so obvious that they won't step up on our behalf.