The future we do not want

World leaders attending Rio+20 did nothing to tackle the interlinked crises of economy and ecology, says Sunita Narain after attending the second Earth Summit at Rio

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 25 June 2012

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, came to an end last week. The conference declaration, titled “The Future We Want”, is a weak and meaningless document. It aims at the lowest common denominator consensus to say nothing consequential about how the world will move ahead to deal with the interlinked crises of economy and ecology. The question arises: is this the future we want or the future we dread?

The final document is being touted as a victory for the developing world, particularly India, because it reiterates the principle of common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities. This guiding principle, hammered out with much acrimony in 1992, establishes the differentiation of action of different parts of the world. It is, clearly, not negotiable. So, in that one respect, Rio 2012 is a move ahead. But is this enough gain?

We need to ask why things have come to such a pass that 20 years later all that the world is doing is reaffirm principles that cannot, and should not, be rewritten. Why does the world, confronted with real and present dangers of climate change, destruction of the high seas and the need to reinvent growth that is green and inclusive, do nothing more than mouth platitudes about change? Why is Rio+20, then, about the future we do not want?

The fact is that Rio+20 has come at a bad time. Europe, the environmental missionary, is preoccupied with domestic financial concerns. Its governments now say that austerity and no-growth may not be the way to the future. They are seeking a new term of industrialisation in the face of crippling unemployment. In the US, things are not very different. The Barack Obama government is facing an election year and the economy is its paramount issue. The US has no time for global environmental issues. Obama, who was elected on the promise of change, is shy of even mentioning the word “climate”.

But more importantly, the US wants to dismantle the framework that puts it under pressure to act first and contribute more to reduce global environmental burden. In America’s view, the principle of equity in global negotiations is a definite albatross around its neck, which gives unfair advantage to countries like China and India. They want none of this. They want to rewrite the global agreement on this matter. They have worked hard to do this in the climate negotiations and succeeded to some extent. Rio+20 was their chance to get rid of the principle of differentiation from where it was inscribed first. They tried and, thankfully, failed.

But, as a result, every other agenda at Rio+20 was a victim of the first. The second key aim was to establish the concept of a green economy and to use sustainable development goals – not unlike Millennium Development Goals – to measure performance against green targets. But this agenda was soon lost to geopolitical tectonic shifts, where the rich world is declining and the poor world is ascending. The very idea of a green economy was viewed as a new form of green protectionism and conditionality that would hinder growth. In the final Rio+20 decision, the agenda has been tied up in convoluted wording that will make progress difficult.

But it is also important to note that the agenda for creating a green economy was floated without agreement about its definition. The fact is that industrialised countries look at environmental action as divorced from concerns about development and social well-being. More precisely, they see environmental measures as the icing on the cake of development already done and delivered. This icing helps improve performance through efficiency and helps clean up toxins and pollution. On the other hand, developing and emerging countries do not have this luxury. They need growth, and if they accept that growth must be equitable and sustainable, their approach to a green economy will be different. This is the challenge that Rio+20 should have faced squarely.

In this way, Rio+20 was the opportunity to tackle what is clearly the most intractable and most obvious of all issues confronting the world —the current economic growth paradigm that is consumption-led and is gobbling its way through banks and the planet. It is now well understood that the world is staring at a financial recession on the one hand and an environmental catastrophe on the other. It is also increasingly understood that the consumption patterns and lifestyle of the already-rich cannot be afforded by all. How can the world move towards sustainable production and sustainable consumption, but still ensure growth for all? Rio+20 should have focused on this. In addition, it should have focused on new robust measurement tools to track progress in well-being — the “GDP-plus” economy.

Instead, in my view, Rio+20 became the battleground for what can only be considered an illegitimate fight. And if Rio+20 is a failure on account of non-action, then it is also a failure of global leadership that allowed the US and its cronies to contemplate fiddling with the principle of equity in global action and ended up deepening the distrust that destroys global cooperative action.

I returned to Rio 20 years later to better understand developments that mean so much for the future of our world. I came back saddened by the realisation that 20 years later it seems that people have grown up but the world’s leadership is still in kindergarten.


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