Can history be repeated? This week 50,000 people from all parts of the world are travelling to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, which laid the foundations for the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions limits and the Nagoya Protocol on biodiversity.
The Rio+20 summit was initially billed as the occasion to set new environmental priorities. It was supposed to set a global definition for the ‘green economy’ and set ‘sustainable development goals’ for each country. But preliminary talks have been bogged down in fighting between developed and developing countries, so expectations are being hurriedly revised downwards.
Developing countries are concerned that the ‘green economy’ will replace the old objective of ‘sustainable development’ set at the 1992 summit. They fear that the criteria for determining a ‘green economy’ might be used to determine the distribution of international aid, or used as an excuse for trade protectionism.
“The green economy is not entirely perceived as being a positive concept,” admits Janez Potocnik, the European commissioner for environment. “There is this idea that there is the developed world forcing targets on the developing world, but this is not true. We don’t want to be locked into patterns of production that are not sustainable. If we don’t address that now we will be forced to address it later.”
The concept of sustainable development goals has been more warmly welcomed by developing countries. But at this stage it looks unlikely that the goals themselves can be agreed by next Thursday (22 June) when the negotiations in Rio are scheduled to end. Instead, the goals would be decided afterwards.
Those goals are supposed to cover three categories – social, economic and environmental. Developing countries are concerned that the European Union is paying too much attention to the last category and not enough to the first two. They are also doubtful about an EU idea to set specific ‘priority goals’ next week, while leaving the rest to be decided later. They suspect that since only environmental goals have so far been discussed, the environmental goals would become the priorities. China in particular has insisted that the other two categories must get equal attention.
Environmental campaigners say that the EU has played a constructive role in negotiations, but has met fierce resistance from other developed countries, which in turn has reduced its ambitions and expectations. Tony Long, head of the European policy office of the campaign group WWF, says: “The EU will attempt to set a new direction at Rio+20, by presenting its resource- efficiency strategy as a way of heading towards a green global economy.
“The big question still remains how many other countries participating at Rio are going to be willing to follow this leadership.”
Full Name: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development
Organiser: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Venue: Riocentro Convention Centre
Expected attendees: More than 50,000
Preparatory meeting: 13-15 June
High-level conference: 20-22 June
Working languages: English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish
European commissioners attending: Janez Potocnik (environment), Connie Hedegaard (climate action), Andris Piebalgs (development), Dacian Ciolos¸ (agriculture) , José Manuel Barroso (Commission president)
EU member-state heads of government attending: Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden
For their part, developing countries are unlikely to agree to anything unless the summit re-affirms the principle of ‘common-but-differentiated responsibility’ set out at the 1992 summit. This principle says that developed countries should have to do more than emerging economies to combat global warming and should give aid to developing countries to help them in their efforts. Developed countries should also lend their technological expertise. But the United States has proved increasingly unhappy about this principle.
Developing countries also want the developed countries to meet the commitments that they made in 1992 for aid, and to make better efforts to meet the aid target of 0.7% of gross domestic product. The United States will resist the idea, as it will resist many of the initiatives being discussed.
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“The US is not playing a very constructive role,” says Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch Liberal MEP, who will be in Rio for the talks. “President Obama, because of his re-election [campaign], has no real interest in a successful Rio outcome. Anything that has to do with the environment is damaging his chances for the elections.”
The host country, Brazil, is also coming in for criticism. “As a host country, they didn’t really pick up a lot of responsibility,” says Gerbrandy. “They’ve been very passive, and they seemed to have a hidden agenda on not wanting to get any agreement on the green economy.”
A round of preparatory negotiations last month was so fruitless that an additional round was scheduled in early June, prompting Switzerland’s environment ministry to put out a statement complaining that the Rio+20 process was not well-managed and that Brazil should have a stronger vision.
“If we’re not successful in getting a certain level of outcome, the EU might have to look for some sort of ‘coalition of the willing’ – countries that do believe that we have to move forward with the green economy,” says Gerbrandy. “We could have beneficial trade agreements with those countries that are willing to move forward.”
Renewing their vows
After the slow pace of the preparatory talks, expectations for the summit have been much reduced. Accordingly the attendance will be mixed. Barack Obama, the president of the US, Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, David Cameron, the prime minister of the UK, and Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, will stay away. But François Hollande, the president of France, will attend, as will José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, and four other European commissioners.
“The expectations of many are not too high, but I’m not giving up,” says Potocnik. “The whole story is so complex. It’s a conceptual change for development that would include social and environmental changes. It’s not as straightforward as Nagoya for biodiversity or Durban for climate change.”
Expectations are being played down so much that if Rio+20 can produce a renewal of the promises and commitments made in 1992, that might be enough to count as a success.
If, despite the enormous distraction of the global economic crisis, governments do commit themselves to the same level of environmental ambition that they were willing to commit themselves to in better times, that would count for something.
There will be some relatively uncontroversial measures up for agreement. The United Nations Environment Programme could be upgraded to a UN specialised agency on a par with the International Maritime Organisation. The creation of a Sustainable Development Council is on the cards, to follow up on the ideas discussed in Rio. Positive language on the green economy might bear fruit later.
“It’s not only about what is in the final text,” says Gerbrandy. “If world leaders get convinced about the importance of a green economy, that might be even more important than political agreements. Though, of course, the combination of the two is even better.”