The bumpy road to Rio+20

The meeting will review achievements and failures since the Earth Summit of 1992

By Betwa Sharma
Published: Wednesday 10 August 2011

The international community is stumbling in its efforts to find a middle path to a greener planet. Less than a year remains, when nations will converge in Rio de Janeiro to renew their vow towards sustainable development and a greener economy. The UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, popularly known as Rio+20, will not only review achievements and failures since the Earth Summit of 1992 held in this same city but will also need to provide a road-map for sustainable development. But a recent round of negotiations in New York in May 2011 was nothing but a squabble.

Sean McDonagh, an Irish priest and ecologist, who observed the negotiations, says, “The data is getting more apoplectic while the interest and leadership is disintegrating.”

Blow to the 10-Year Plan
The New York meet was the 19th annual meet of the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD 19), which was established in 1992 to implement the Rio agenda. The meet was significant because it was viewed as a precursor to Rio+20.

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The 10-year framework of programme on sustainable consumption and production patterns (10YFP) quickly emerged at the top of the agenda.  Achieving “sustainable consumption and production” (SCP) was on the “to do” list adopted in 1992. It was reiterated 10 years later in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI), UN member states agreed to develop a 10-year framework of programmes “to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production to promote social and economic development within the carrying capacity of ecosystems”.

The goal involved several actions including linking SCP with national development plans, investment in cleaner products and services, raising consumer awareness and encouraging industries to make sustainable choices.

At CSD 19, U N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called 10YFP a “strategic priority” that should be “embedded in an institutional framework” and “launched without delay”.

But delegates had disagreements over the financing of 10YFP as well as deciding on the UN agency to run it. While developing countries wanted the developed world to take the lead in implementing the programme, rich countries backed away from being tied to specific commitments especially providing additional finances.

Eventually, they agreed that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) would provide an institutional framework for the programme and set up a trust fund for voluntary contributions from public and private sources. But countries did not adopt these measures as agreement on the larger text fell apart.

For Tara DePorte, an environmentalist in New York, the failure to agree on a 10YFP agreement was the biggest blow to CSD 19. “For me, the apparent lack of urgency around passing the 10 YFP is devastating to the processes of sustainable development and to addressing the core of our international environmental issues---what we consume, how we consume, and how we produce what we consume,” she said.

The rich step back
While old arguments plagued negotiators, developed countries took a step back on previous agreements as well. “The level of urgency was not there,” says Tariq Banuri, director of the sustainable development division at the UN. “Countries don’t want to make any new agreements but instructions to negotiators seemed to pull back on commitments,” adds Banuri.

Banuri pointed out that developed countries distanced themselves from the principle of common yet differentiated responsibilities as well as concessional and preferential access to finance and technology for developing countries.

The UN's annual World Economic and Social Survey, which was released in the first week of July calls for rapid deployment of green technologies to avoid a major planetary catastrophe. The survey “The Great Green Technological Transformation” acknowledges that multilateral trading systems like under the World Trade Organization and bilateral trade treaties could potentially harm development and transfer of green technologies.

Broad expectations from Rio+20 include a political document laying down a policy framework, an agreement on global sustainable development programmes with clear targets, and an agreement on the mandates of the different UN organisations.

Both developed and developing countries want a “balanced” outcome but this holds different meanings for the North and South, especially as developed countries are getting increasingly rigid about emerging economies like China and India taking on more international obligations, which both resist. “The principle of equity cannot be wished away,” retorts an Indian official.

At CSD 19, India insisted that Rio should not focus “disproportionately” on low  carbon growth but have a multi-pronged approach that dwells on the challenges of energy access, affordability of renewable energy options and subsidy as a policy option.

The UN is expected to put out the first draft of a possible agreement by January and governments have been called to submit their proposals by October, this year. Indian officials say that for anything substantial to emerge from Rio+20, developed and developing countries need to tone down their expectations. Since time is running out, however, the goals set out in Brazil need to be backed by deadlines and a political commitment at the highest level.

The divisions over green economy   
An important question is whether the green economy concept will compromise the developmental goals and poverty eradication priorities of the South. In reality, there are deep divisions about what green economy entails. “It is an extremely complex concept and it is unlikely there can be a consensus on its meaning, use and usefulness and policy implications, in a short time,” said Martin Khor, director of the South Centre, during a presentation at the UN, earlier this year.

Developing countries are wary of green economy pathways constraining employment generation and income growth. Tremendous complexities accompany green economy in respect of the trade-offs entailed, investment flows, compatibility with the private sector and free markets, and the scope of state regulation.

The European Union (EU), which looks at green economy as part of sustainable development, is widely regarded as its strongest supporter. At the meeting in May, EU stressed the right market mechanisms needed to be put in place to support green economy.

On the other hand, G-77 & China regard poverty as the most pressing issue of sustainable development. These countries want green economy to be coupled with preferential treatment for developing countries in terms of technology transfer and market access. India, too, clearly stated that the green economy should not lead to trade protectionism. “Instead of stressing on instruments like bans and non-tariff barriers, greening of trade can be attempted through existing trade regulators,” Tishya Chatterjee, the environment secretary told negotiators in May.   

Kohr pointed out the risks of rich countries using “green economy” to justify unilateral trade measures like  “carbon tariff” or “border adjustment tax”  against the products of developing countries, or to impose standards that have not been agreed to, which could lead to loss of exports. He also advised against “green economy” being used as conditionality for aid and loans.

In view of its past record, the path India will take is unclear. At the Cancun climate change conference in December 2010, India, in the interest of cultivating a bridge-builder role, was seen as pulling away from the conventional North-South paradigm.

Advance warning
The failure of CSD 19 also puts question marks over Rio's second objective – to improve global environmental governance. Rio+20 is an opportunity to upgrade the UN institutional framework for sustainable development and managing the environment.

There is broad consensus between the North and South that the Nairobi-based UNEP should be strengthened. But there is no unanimity on turning UNEP into an umbrella institution for environmental issues. While the EU favours the UNEP as a powerful specialised agency, the US and India do not want a very strong international body. India would prefer strengthening and enhancing coordination between the different groups, as well as more resources for the UNEP to promote developmental and environmental activities in developing countries.

Countries within G77 and China have different opinions over the role of UNEP.  The Small Island States, which have the most to lose from climate change, favour the EU approach of strict international environmental standards. African countries have always been close to the UNEP, which is the only UN entity in a developing country.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations are worried they are being sidelined in environmental negotiations by governments. At the 2010 climate change negotiations in Cancun, for instance, NGOs were housed in a separate building with no access to diplomats.

At Cancun, when young activists managed to reach the negotiating building one day, they were put into a bus by the security and driven away.  “Just a sign of the times that the government does not want to deal with NGOs anymore,” says McDonagh.


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