20th Anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit
4-6 June, 2012, Rio de Janeiro
Gift list: to be determined
You’d be forgiven for not clocking that that there’s a major UN sustainable development conference on the horizon. In less than a year, governments will convene in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, 20 years on from the 1992 Rio ‘Earth Summit’.
So far Rio+20 is shaping up like many anniversaries. Everyone agrees that the occasion is VERY IMPORTANT and must be marked. The date and venue is set, and guests alerted. But people are still scratching their heads over what to do on the big day – let alone what gifts to give.
The politics are way off course for achieving anything as groundbreaking as the 1992 Earth Summit. That produced two binding UN conventions (climate change, biodiversity), two sets of principles (the Rio Declaration, Forest Principles) and an implementation plan (Agenda 21).
This time round no new treaty is on the cards. Still nursing their scars from Copenhagen, and locked in a tunnel vision focus on growth, governments have said that Rio+20 will be about discussing ‘progress, gaps and future challenges for sustainable development’ and – in true anniversary style – securing ‘renewed political commitment’. You don’t have to be a hardened cynic to worry that we’re headed toward the ‘rhetoric plus photo op’ formula for international summitry.
Still, it would be a huge mistake to dismiss Rio+20. The threats of resource scarcity and environmental shocks are greater than ever, especially for poor people. Nowhere is this clearer than in the food system, as years of slow progress on hunger risk being reversed as demand outstrips supply, and food production and farmers’ livelihoods are hit by depleting natural resources, a scramble for fertile land and water, and climate change.
These challenges cannot be solved without global co-operation to share resources fairly and help people cope with crises. A thoughtful paper by Alex Evans and David Steven out last month argues that Rio+20 could play a path-finding role – exploring where future deals are needed, the interests at stake and what’s needed to change political calculus surrounding them.
And let’s not forget the conference does have a theme – two in fact: the ‘green economy’ and the ‘institutional framework for sustainable development’. The latter is important but unfortunately sounds breathtakingly dull to the grassroots activist (“What do we want? An upgraded UNEP!”). The discussions are also weighed down by inter-agency UN politics and governments’ unwillingness to increase the power of multilateral bodies – including the US, which will be in full-on Presidential election mode by mid 2012. A shifting of the institutional deckchairs seems more likely than significant reform.
The Green Economy, however, has hit a political sweet spot. The G20 and G8 have been promising to ‘green’ their growth since mid-2009. Several developing countries – from China and South Korea to Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda – are promoting green investments, in areas such as renewable energy, organic agriculture, waste management and forest conservation. A slew of reports, like those from UNEP and the OECD, catalogue these efforts and make the case for why economies need to shift to a sustainable path. And many hope that the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability will provide concrete ideas for Rio+20 on how to achieve this transformation. A new set of Sustainable Development Goals to mirror the MDGs is one proposal on the table.
The trouble is that Green Economy is still conceptually fuzzy and politically contentious. Some campaign groups and Southern governments fear that this is all a cover for business-as-usual, whereby powerful governments and businesses will exploit new environmental markets or policies for their own gain – like through ‘green border tariffs’ – and the inequality and unsustainability of growth will remain untouched. Jim Thomas at ETC group wrote a piece in the Guardian on this.
At Oxfam, we’re still reading the runes on this one. One option for civil society is to use Green Economy as a political hook to campaign for a vision of development that is truly transformative – which weans rich countries off over-consumption and enables developing countries to reduce poverty and cope with resource scarcity. A reformed food system, which promotes food security, investment in smallholders and sustainable agriculture – and reverses distorting policies such as biofuel mandates – must be at the heart of that vision. So too should the whole issue of “fair shares” – a complex but vital issue, which Alex Evans helps unpick in a new Oxfam/WWF paper.
So what is needed to raise the ambition for Rio? A few ideas. First, campaigners can tap into public concern over the outcomes of growing demand and resource pressures, such as food and fuel prices. Even Finance Ministries care about these issues.
Second, we need to identify the public policy changes to call for at Rio. It sounds obvious, but there’s a huge shopping list of ideas out there. Some are general (“we need something on agriculture, biodiversity, forest etc”) and others specific (end fossil fuel subsidies, introduce green product standards, agree energy access goals, measure green GDP). Which ones really require a global push at Rio and can get buy-in politically? This leads to a third point, which is about spotting where political opportunities will open up, for instance, because of a crisis (famine in the Horn) or because another process has created political space (G20 on fossil fuel subsidy reform?).
Finally, we urgently need to figure out where the BRICS are on this. Northern-based NGOs and civil servants are pinning a lot of hope on emerging economies to provide leadership for Rio. This is partly a counsel of despair: their own governments are busy battling a debt crisis/looming election. But there is something in the “go BRICS” approach. In the next year, a series of summits will be hosted by these countries: South Africa on climate, South Korea on aid effectiveness, Mexico on the G20 and Brazil for Rio+20. Plus, they all face pressure to find an alternate development path as sustainability challenges threaten to slow growth, foment domestic opposition or simply bring countries to a standstill (pollution, gridlocked cities). And they’re still building major infrastructure rather than being already locked-in, like in the West.
But does this add up to leadership for global co-operation, or will the same old games of narrow self-interest still apply? Look at the G20. Despite soaring food prices, Brazil isn’t budging on biofuel mandates, nor Russia on export bans. And in the UN Security Council, China is said to have watered down recent efforts to get climate change recognised as a threat to peace and security – even as the Maldives sinks beneath the waves. Smart analysis of politics in the BRICs would help. Are there resource shocks round the corner that threaten growth and security, cannot be dealt with through national policy alone (safety nets, foreign resource ‘grabs’) and have multilateral solutions that yield direct benefits in the short-term (cf UNFCCC)? What other potential domestic drivers of change exist?