The Rio Earth Summit: is it destined to fail the world?
The environmental problems facing the world are growing critical, so why is so little expected from the Rio summit?
High above Rio de Janeiro, on the precipitous peak of Corcovado, the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer is being picked out in green light at night. The way things are going, He is likely to be the only leader turning more verdant as a result of the more figurative summit opening today 2,300 feet below. For as more than 100 presidents and prime ministers fly into the “marvellous city” for the first Earth Summit in two decades, an unprecedentedly weak set of conclusions is being prepared for their imprimatur.
Back in 1992, the world’s leaders produced no fewer than three international treaties – on tackling global warming, arresting the rapid loss of species, and saving the world’s soils from increasing destruction – plus a 40-chapter road map for addressing environmental issues called Agenda 21. But precious little has been done to implement them over the last two decades.
Today’s summit was originally designed to provide new impetus. It even left aside the contentious issue of climate change, in the hope of making progress on those crises on which almost everyone is agreed, such as increasing overfishing and pollution in the oceans, growing world hunger and unemployment, and rapidly expanding cities.
Fat chance. After months of inconclusive preparatory meetings, it is all too clear that the torpor and time-wasting that have dogged the international negotiations on climate change – especially since the disappointing 2009 Copenhagen summit – have spread to the whole field of environmental and development issues.
And yet these crises have continued to get much worse, provoking ever more alarmed warnings from normally cautious scientists. Just this week, a group of Nobel prizewinners – noting that the scientific evidence was now “unequivocal” – advised the organisers of the summit: “We are on the threshold of a future of unprecedented environmental risks. The combined effects of climate change, resource scarcity, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem resilience at a time of increased demand poses a real threat to humanity’s welfare.”
Their advice followed a series of authoritative reports warning that critical “tipping points” may soon be reached. A landmark paper in Nature by 22 top biologists and scientists reported that 43 per cent of the world’s ice-free land has already been converted to uses from agriculture to cities, adding that studies suggest that when the proportion rises to more than half – a level predicted to be reached within 20 years – the world’s web of life could start to collapse.
The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) five-yearly Global Environmental Outlook concluded: “The scale, speed and rate of change of global drivers are without precedent. Burgeoning populations and growing economies are pushing environmental systems to destabilising limits.”
Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director, added: “In 1992 we talked about the future that was likely to occur. Twenty years later, this report speaks to the fact that a number of the things we then talked about in the future tense have arrived.”
Over the past three decades, coral reefs have shrunk by 38 per cent, the number of floods has more than doubled, and nearly 170 big “dead zones”, caused by pollution, have appeared in the oceans. Yet, the report revealed, little or no action has been taken since the last Rio summit to address the serious decline in wetlands and coral reefs; increasing soil degradation and drought; the depletion of fresh water; overfishing and pollution of the seas; climate change; or the indoor air pollution – mainly from inefficient cooking stoves in developing countries – that kills nearly two million people a year.
Indeed, it added, no significant progress, had been made on 86 of the 90 most important environmental objectives then agreed by the world’s governments. At the same time, the number of hungry people has risen to about a billion worldwide, 1.4 billion live on less than $1.25 a day, and 2.5 billion don’t have even the most basic sanitation.
Any hope that today’s summit would do much about any of this died long ago. Indeed, it did not even set out to produce any new binding agreements: its ambition only extending to producing an exhortatory, aspirational document. But preparing even this proved impossible, as negotiators spent weeks haggling over even the most anodyne wording. Finally, on Saturday, the Brazilian chairmen of the preparatory meeting lost patience, produced their own version of the document and have since been ramming it through, line by line, in order to have something for the leaders when they arrive. They have refused to accept any suggestions, unless unanimously agreed, and even told one Swiss delegate who begged for time off at the weekend “to see your beautiful city” that his only opportunity would be to go jogging before breakfast. The price, however, was to produce a text even weaker than what was already on the table.
The verbs tell the story. The word “encourage” appears 50 times, the phrase “we will” only five; “support” is used 99 times, “must” just three. Precious few concrete provisions remain: a proposal to conserve fish stocks in international waters, a plan to strengthen UNEP, and a suggestion that the world might develop a series of “sustainable development goals” to replace the surprisingly successful Millennium Development Goals when they run out in 2015.
European countries and environmental groups are furious, believing that the Brazilians’ only interest is in saving face by producing some sort of agreed text, whatever the cost to its content. They are particularly disappointed because they say they have found more concern about the environment and poverty crises among negotiators than ever before. Nor do recession and the impending US elections, important as they are, provide a full explanation: the successful summit 20 years ago was also beset by both.
One reason is that 20 years ago the basic documents for discussion were drawn up by experts in water, pollution, conservation and so on who packed them with content; so even though they were greatly weakened in the negotiating process, quite a bit of substance remained. This time, they were drawn up by the negotiators, meaning that they started close to the lowest common denominator and went downhill from there.
Strangely, modern communications technology has also made things harder, says Derek Osborn, a former top British negotiator who now leads the Stakeholder Forum. Where once negotiators were free to bargain, they now have to keep in touch minute by minute with inflexible bureaucrats at home. And where once amendments were tabled overnight, allowing chairmen to craft compromises, they now go straight up on giant screens for instant debate.
Added to this, the Brazilians have shown little interest in the summit. President Dilma Rousseff has been distinctly unenthusiastic and her respected environment minister, Izabella Teixeria, has been sidelined as her government has played up divisions between developed and developing countries to cover its lack of seriousness. And the failure of key leaders like David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Barack Obama to turn up has not helped.
More fundamentally, there seems to be a growing lack of confidence – and competence – in the international process: the failure of trade talks provides another example. However, some 50 cities have taken measures to cut 248 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is to tell the summit. And a summit of parliamentarians in downtown Rio last week resolved to keep closer tabs on their governments’ environmental policies.
A public-private initiative by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to provide modern energy to the fifth of the world’s people who lack it and to double both energy efficiency and the share provided by renewables is attracting major support: this week the Bank of America announced it was investing $50 million over the next 10 years in sustainable business, mainly green energy.
Yet, in the end, it is governments – and their leaders – who can make the biggest changes possible. Perhaps they may yet do so. But that would seem to require the divine intervention symbolised by the green statue on the hill.
Posted on June 20, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged 19 Jun 2012, Achim Steiner, Earth Summit, Edward Burtynsky, Paddy Ashdown, Rio de Janeiro, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, United Nations Environment Programme. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.