Rio draft text revives common but differentiated responsibility

Calls for doing away with green protectionism through trade barriers while dealing with environmental matters

By Arnab Pratim Dutta
Published: Wednesday 20 June 2012

India along with other developing countries managed to gain an upper hand in the negotiations to decide the outcome of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development here in Rio de Janeiro. The conference, popularly referred to as Rio+20, begins in this coastal city on June 20. It commemorates 20 years of the Earth Summit held here in 1992, where close to 100 world leaders came together to pledge their will to arrest environmental degradation and take the path of sustainable development. A draft text that has been adopted less than 24 hours before the conference starts is being viewed as a document that will protect the interest of the developing and poor nations, and it has put the issue of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) back on the table.

The theme of the summit is green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. In the past six months, during the run up to the summit, the negotiations could, at best, be described as choppy. It moved at a snail’s pace and developed and developing countries could not see eye to eye on most matters. There were two key issues before the negotiators: definition of a green economy and sustainable development goals (SDGs). The developed countries, especially the European Union, had sought the one-size-fits-all approach, where there would be a universal definition of green economy and another common set of goals to achieve sustainable development for all countries, whether rich or poor.

The developing nations considered this an unwise proposal. Negotiators from developing countries argued that every nation must do what is nationally appropriate for growing sustainably and ensuring a green economy. They argued that the one-size-fits-all approach went against the principle of CBDR, thereby reducing the difference between the developed and developing nations. Another sticky issue was the means of implementing these two targets; the developed world has been shying away from promising long-term finance and transfer of appropriate technology to developing countries.

Between the lines

The current draft that will be placed before the heads of state when the sustainable development conference begins has only partially dealt with these two major issues. The draft acknowledges that every country has the right to pursue its own SDGs. It says SDGs should be decided after “taking into account different national circumstances, capacities and priorities.” The SDGs have been mooted as a successor to the millennium development goals, the target year for which is 2015. However, Rio+20 will not be the venue where the SDGs would be decided. Instead, the process will begin during 67th session of the UN General Assembly, starting September 24. The draft has mooted the setting up of a committee of 30 members. They would be nominated by member states through the five UN regional groups with the aim of “achieving fair, equitable and balanced geographic representation”. This group will prepare the roadmap for SDGs and submit it the General Assembly in the next session.

The concept of green economy in the context of sustainable development has not gained much currency in the draft text. It does not define what a green economy is, but leaves it to countries to have their own definition. Developing countries can take solace from the fact that there is mention of finance and technology.

On technology, the draft says green economic policy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should “contribute to closing technology gaps between developed and developing countries and reduce the technological dependence of developing countries using all appropriate measures”.

On finance, it talks about doing away with unwarranted conditionalities while providing overseas development assistance and strengthening of international cooperation, including “provision of financial resources, capacity building and technology transfer to developing countries”. The draft also calls for doing away with green protectionism through trade barriers and international trade restrictions while dealing with environmental issues.

Panel for mobilising funds proposed

“Means of implementation” is one of the most discussed and debated topics in the Rio+20 agenda. With a financial crisis looming large over Europe and the US, these developed blocs have offered very little. But in order to implement SDGs or for creating a green economy, the developing countries have made strident calls to make available finance and technology. Both these have been sticky issues in the climate change negotiations, too, which is going on under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Rio+20 draft envisages an inter-governmental committee, consisting of 30 members, that will use resources and expertise of the UN and will also report to the General Assembly on ways to mobilise finance for developing countries. Use of market-based financing through private investment and money from international finance institutions have also been added as possible sources for funding.

Importance of technology transfer has been stressed in the draft text. Along with it, there is emphasis on access to environmentally sound technologies and cooperative action on technology, innovation research and development.

Special status demand for UNEP dropped

The developing countries under G77+China have almost remained united throughout the negotiations. There have been minor differences—mostly over the United Nations Environmental Programme’s stature post Rio+20. Backed by the EU, there was a proposal from African countries to make UNEP a specialised UN agency like UNDP or UNICEF. Other developing countries opposed this move because it is generally perceived that most policy level decisions of UNEP are dictated by European countries, particularly France and Germany. The US opposed the move citing lack of funds. But the EU’s plans seems to have backfired as African nations, including Kenya where UNEP is based, dropped this demand. On the last night of negotiations, the EU was virtually left alone in its quest.

Instead of a specialised UN agency, it has been envisaged that UNEP will have universal membership in its governing body unlike earlier where 54 countries took a three-year term each on rotation. On the other hand, UNEP will have more access to finance and resources from the UN, and will have greater engagement in the coordination bodies of the UN.

In what could be seen as a repeat of the 1992 Earth summit, the draft text has proposed to replace the Commission for Sustainable Development with a universal intergovernmental forum. The role of the high level political forum will be to follow up on the implementation of sustainable development but would avoid overlap with existing structures, bodies and entities in a cost-effective manner.


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