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Reflecting on 30 years of environmental activism

Reflecting on 30 years of environmental activism

By Ana Rocha

My trajectory as an activist started in 1992, when I was a child in Brazil, and the city of Rio de Janeiro hosted Rio 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development , also known as the “Earth Summit”.

As described on the UN’s website, “this global conference brought together political leaders, diplomats, scientists, representatives of the media and NGOs from 179 countries for a massive effort to focus on the impact of human socio-economic activities on the environment. A 'Global Forum' of NGOs was also held in Rio de Janeiro at the same time, bringing together an unprecedented number of NGO representatives, who presented their vision of the world's future about the environment and socio-economic development”.

Two of the many great achievements of the “Earth Summit“ were the Rio Declaration and its 27 universal principles and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which has hosted the Conference of Parties (COP) for the past 27 years.

As a Brazilian girl breathing in the excitement of that convention, the first in which climate change was acknowledged to be a global concern, I was taken by the certainty that my generation would lead the environmental change as we had the information that the previous generations lacked to achieve sustainable development. Thirty years later, I entered COP27, voicing the same concerns that I had in 1992 and still fighting for change.

In the past 30 years, there were many environmental wins: the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that committed industrialised countries and economies in transition to limit and reduce greenhouse gases emissions in accordance with agreed individual targets; the Paris agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change that drove countries into producing five-year cycles of commitments through their nationally determined contributions NDCs; among many others.

Unfortunately, the excitement of many of these wins did not reflect in bold action, and the mechanisms that could enable bold climate action, including the necessary financing mechanisms that developing nations need to transition into an economy less reliant on fossil fuels, are lacking.

At COP27, I enter the room as part of a coalition committed to conveying the exciting impact that the implementation of zero-waste models can have in reducing greenhouse gas emissions – only in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), where I live, a reduction of 65% is possible when zero waste is adopted in combination with much-needed restrictions to plastic production. We advocate for a world in which power is distributed, vulnerable populations have access to income and to waste management services, organic waste is returned to the soil where it belongs and rich oil companies are not allowed to trash the environment with plastic products that no country, rich or poor, can appropriately manage.

Unfortunately, the COP also exposes the resistance that power holders have when it comes to changing production systems and act on the climate emergency. Carbon credits, offsetting, and waste-to-energy are some of the many “solutions” proposed here that perpetuate the concentration of power, centralisation of decision-making and, above all, enable privileged rich countries and companies to continuously generate wealth that harms the planet and most people living in it. Even worse, the initiatives create a form of climate colonialism as they basically turn communities and ecosystems in the global south into enablers of profit in the global north.

When I think of the young activist who emerged in Brazil in 1992, I confess that I question if I did justice to her dreams and ambitions. Despite 30 years of dedication to the vision of a balanced world and a planet in peace, I constantly ask myself if my contributions had any relevant impact in moving towards it

Frequently, when I look around, I find the most inspiring people I know asking themselves the same question. I remind myself that we are one link in a long chain of change and that each of us is here to take action forward and ease the load on the next generation, the generation of my two young kids, who will have to deal with all the commitments that we under deliver.

As COP27 heads to an end, I hope that we can create the conditions not for a just transition but for a just world. While including neglected voices in the transition to an economy non-dependent on fossil fuels is fundamental to subverting power structures, justice must be permanent and unnegotiable. Thirty years later, the girl inside me still believes that the dream is possible. Do you?

* Environmental activist and an executive director with Nipe Fagio in Tanzania.

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