Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Rio+20: Will we get the future we want?

Recently concluded Rio+20 Summit, formally United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development; created much buzz-more criticism less applaud. The 10 day mega-conference involved 45,000 people including heads of states and ministers from 190 member states, businessmen, academicians and even religious leaders. Rio+20 was supposed to be the successor of Rio Earth Summit held 20 years ago, but ironically unlike Rio Earth Summit ’92 which brought climate change agenda to international politics and resulted in two ground breaking treaties on Climate Change and saving biodiversity; all Rio+20 culminated into was a non-binding document-“The future we want”-devoid of any detail and ambition needed to address the challenges posed by a deteriorating environment, worsening inequality and a global population.

How far have come since Rio Earth Summit 1992? Since then global emissions have risen by 48%, 300m hectares of forest have been cleared and the population has increased by 1.6bn people. Despite a reduction in poverty, one in six people are malnourished. Humanity's annual requirement for natural resources is about double what it was then. The rate of species extinctions is undiminished. Carbon dioxide emissions are up 40%, and the concentration of the heat-trapping gas this year for the first time hit 400 parts per million (ppm) in the Arctic air — up about 40 ppm from 1992. 

Even though Rio+20 aimed to discuss and charter a way forward to “green economy”; what it actually achieved is debateable.  Though the UN officials and Government representatives were optimistic about the outcome of Rio+20; Ban Ki-moon, UN Sec. Gen, said the document would guide the world on to a more sustainable path: "Our job now is to create a critical mass. The road ahead is long and hard." US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said it was a time to be optimistic. "A more prosperous future is within our reach, a future where all people benefit from sustainable development no matter who they are or where they live." But environment campaigners and scientists decried the summit, and were scathing its outcome. WWF International lambasted a "colossal failure of leadership and vision" and Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo called the summit a failure of epic proportions. "We didn't get the Future We Want in Rio, because we do not have the leaders we need.”

So what did Rio+20 achieve? 

“Plan” to set up Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Negotiators at Rio were unable to agree on themes, which will now be left to an "open working group" of 30 nations to decide upon by September 2013. Two years later, they will be blended with Millennium Development Goals

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was not upgraded to World Organisation, as many stakeholders wanted, but would get will get a more secure budget, a broader membership and strong powers to initiate scientific research and coordinate global environment strategies. Rio+20 also established a "high-level" forum to coordinate global sustainable development, though its format is still to be defined.

“Green Economy” which was the buzzword at the Rio’s corridors was diluted by suspicions from some developing countries that this was another way for wealthy nations to impose a "one-model-fits-all" approach and raise “Green Barriers” to trade.

Nations agreed to think about ways to place a higher value on nature, including alternatives to GDP as a measure of wealth that account more for environmental and social factors, and efforts to assess and pay for "environmental services" provided by nature, such as carbon sequestration and habitat protection

All nations "reaffirmed" commitments to phase out harmful fossil fuel subsidies.

A plan to rescue the high seas – which are outside national jurisdictions – was blocked by the US, Nicaragua, Canada and Russia. Instead, leaders say they will do more to prevent over-fishing and ocean acidification. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature called the decision a "deep disappointment".

Developing countries were able to have their say and steer their concerns regarding environment and its economic and social costs.

An underlying characteristic of the Rio+20 accord was its vagueness, there were no quantified environmental or sustainability goals to which anyone committed to. The strongest initiatives have been taken at the sidelines of the summit, outside the negotiating halls. Significant agreements have been struck on investing in public transport, commitments made to green accounting by corporations and strategies agreed by cities and judicial bodies on reducing environmental impacts. The dynamism has been found in a 10-day "People's Summit”, running parallel to Rio+20 Summit, which saw more than 50,000 people participate in it to voice in their support for the environment. 

Transition to “green economy” and more sustainable development has economic costs, though all nations seemed to uphold the ideals of saving the environment but nobody wanted to put money on the table. Developing countries wanted a $30bn per year fund to help in the transition to sustainability, but in the midst of a financial crisis in Europe and fairly recent financial crises in USA, nobody was willing to say how much money they would contribute. Instead, there was a promise to enhance funding, but by how much and by whom were left to future discussions. This was sighted by G-77 countries as a major reason for a weak outcome. Paradoxically, the summit was supposed to introduce green economics as an answer to the financial crisis and as a springboard for growth.

Another reason for failure of Rio+20 was lack of trust between nations. The recriminations began even before the conference closed. British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg blamed developing countries for being "antagonistic to our European ideas on the green economy." Brazilian delegate and Senator Eduardo Braga said, "Europe is too absorbed by its economic problems." Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff said rich nations had not kept Copenhagen promises on "green funding" and so were in no position to criticise others for a lack of ambition: "All countries must take responsibility. Nobody can point the finger."

Rio+20 witnessed some interesting trends. Unlike Rio Earth Summit ’92 which attracted every world leader including the reluctant George H.W. Bush, Rio+20 had important world leaders like Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameroon missing; is this indicative of leadership deficit or question of priority in view of upcoming presidential elections for Obama and financial crises at home for Merkel and Cameroon, is open to interpretation. Another important trend was intense participation of private sector, with UN claims that more 1500 top corporate leaders attended the summit. If governments can’t be decisive, Corporations can be. Private corporations seem to have got the scent that “green economy” means a lot of new business, and why not? Commoditization of environment and Carbon Credit trading is just indicative of the fact that Environment is going to be the next hotspot for investments. NGOs warned in Rio that if nature had a dollar sign attached, corporations would soon take it over. How prescient these predictions are time will tell. 

Though Rio+20 did not live upto the expectations, as the overall governmental commitment and resolve was conservative, but it charted a way forward which clearly demarcates that public-private partnership and individual commitment to saving the environment will play a crucial role if we want to materialise the future we want or else we will be more culpable in Rio+40!

-Sudhanshu Sharma

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