Analysis: How important is Rio+20?

By Khadija Patel 29 June 2012

As the customs of global environmental governance dictate, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro last week to argue their way around the possibility of saving the planet. After three days of talks and political posturing the planet is no closer to being saved, raising concerns of the relevance of the United Nations climate conferences. By KHADIJA PATEL.

Of the nearly 100 heads of state and various government officials who travelled to Brazil for the “Rio+20” United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were notable absentees.

Environmental challenges don’t appear to figure too prominently in the world’s current serving of geopolitical, economic and technological challenges. Concerns about climate change, the environment and biodiversity do appear to pale against all this noise of bombs, bonds, bailouts and austerity – but then environmental threats only exacerbate these challenges.

“We are entering a period of intensified environmental stress, in the form of accelerated ecological degradation and greater risk of shortage and disruption in energy and food supplies, as well as heightened political tensions over control of and access to resources,” Robert Falkner and Bernice Lee write in the May edition of International Affairs, published by British think-tank Chatham House last month.

At the centre of an increasingly unstable world are issues of sustainable development, issues of scarce resources, issues that require world leaders to get over themselves long enough to decide how best to address them.

Lately, however, successive United Nations climate conferences have failed to produce anything more than severely watered-down texts that do little more than promise to do something at some point in the future.  The failure of world leaders working in global environmental governance to buck this trend in Rio calls into question the effectiveness of existing governance mechanisms in dealing with global environmental threats and the unequal distribution of resources.

Last week’s conference in Rio was particularly significant because it meant a return to Rio after it hosted the Rio Earth Summit, one of the most high-profile environment summits in UN history. In the 20 years between then and now little has changed. Much of what was on the agenda in Rio 1992 is still on the agenda today – climate change, deforestation and the destruction of biodiversity. And then there are issues like the pressure on food and water driven by demographic change, economic growth and shifting consumption patterns.

Climate justice activists around the world had hoped that Rio+20 would establish clear goals on issues like food security, water and energy. The document endorsed by world leaders at the end of the Rio summit, ambitiously titled, “The future we want”, did not address these issues with any measure of decisiveness.

As it turned out, the agreement proposed launching a process to agree on sustainable development goals, or SDGs, which will likely build on and overlap with a current round of objectives known as the millennium development goals, which UN members agreed to pursue at least through 2015.

“We resolve to establish an inclusive and transparent inter-governmental process on SDGs that is open to all stakeholders with a view to developing global sustainable development goals to be agreed by the United Nations General Assembly (in September),” the agreement says.

One of the greatest talking points of Rio+20 was the concept of a “green economy”, or improving human well-being and social equity while reducing environmental risks, which could be a common roadmap for sustainable development. One of the few things the agreement did achieve is affirming that each country could have its own path toward achieving a “green economy”. The text said it could provide options for policy-making but should not be a “rigid set of rules”.

Khadija Sharife, an Africa Report journalist who attended the conference, believes the movement towards a green economy is the most significant portion of the agreement.

“It is the bankers’ dream – the legitimisation of the green economy where valuation deepens the commodification of ecosystems,” she said. “This has the extended impact of financialising ecosystems as priced or monetised services.”

The UN has trumpeted the news that more than 700 “voluntary commitments” to promote sustainable development, amounting to about $513-billion (€410 billion), were made in Rio by governments, businesses, civil society groups, universities and others.

But what this summit proved once more is that, faced with the prospect of failure, negotiators who struggled for months to agree to a more ambitious final document ended up opting for the lowest common denominator. “The future we want” makes little progress beyond what was signed at the original 1992 Earth Summit.

The Economist succinctly quotes the World Wildlife Fund, which points out that the draft version of the agreement included the word “encourage” 50 times and the phrase “we will” just five times, “support” appeared 99 times, but “must” only thrice. And, as much as the final agreement was a compromise, it was far from pleasing to anybody involved.
British deputy prime Minister Nick Clegg is reported to have said: “Dilution and compromise is the name of the game,” and the EU’s climate-change commissioner Connie Hedegaard tweeted: “Telling that nobody in that room adopting the text was happy. That’s how weak it is.”

Patrick Bond, Director of the Centre for Civil Society and Professor in the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal believes the failure of international environmental diplomacy lies in the way it is structured.

“There is currently a structural flaw in the process of global climate politics,” he said. “Every negotiating team goes to these conferences to secure the right for its business elites to emit more greenhouse gases.”

He likens South Africa’s own strategy at these conferences to the Americans’. “The US came to Rio to sabotage the negotiations,” he said. “Their basic strategy is to get rid of equity. It was a strategy unveiled in Durban, a strategy pursued more strongly by Barack Obama than both the Bush administrations,” he said.

Bond, who also travelled to Rio engage with the assembled members of civil society, believes the failures of global environmental governance in these conferences proves the urgency with which civil society now needs to depose the business-as-usual thinking that pervades these conferences.

It is a sentiment that was echoed by UN secretary-general Ban ki-Moon, who also called for support from civil society to “create a critical mass, an irresistible momentum” to overcome the inevitable obstacles on the path towards a more environmentally sustainable economy. 

Rio+20 has demonstrated once more that the current apparatus available in the UN is outdated. It hinders any ability to meet the threat of dangerous and irreversible environmental damage.

Speaking after Rio, Greenpeace head Kumi Naidoo was scathing of the conference’s inability to actually do anything except promise to do something at some time in the future.  “What is left” Naidoo said, “is the clear sense that the future we want is not one our leaders can actually deliver.”

Perhaps he is quite right. How wrong it is for us to expect politicians to build the future we want. DM

Read more:

  • Rio+20 Many “mays” but few “musts” in The Economist
  • Main points in Rio+20 agreement on AlertNet

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