Friday, June 15, 2012
by Murray Griffin
What might the world get out of Rio+20? The 3-day U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development kicks off in Rio de Janeiro June 20. If the ambitions of many are met, Rio+20 will put the world on track to agree a suite of sustainable development goals on matters such as energy, water and food security, building on the Millennium Development Goals that expire in 2015.If many in the finance sector have their way, Rio+20 also will encourage nations to oblige big business to report on environmental factors material to their operations, or explain why they do not. It also could strengthen the United Nations's capacity to fulfil its responsibilities as administrator of the world's environmental treaties and programs ("governance" is a key focus of the summit). And it might even broaden the way we think about and measure success as a society, although the notion of the "green economy" that is supposed to be the vehicle for this task has proved highly controversial in preliminary talks.
What is Needed From Rio?What does the world need out of Rio+20? Well, that is a very different question. Back in March, a conference of some of the world's leading scientists issued a "state of the planet declaration," calling for "urgent action." It warned of pressures that "may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries." Similar concerns were raised by the UN Environment Program in its latest Global Environmental Outlook, which warned of environmental systems being pushed "to destabilizing limits."
Raising the level of ambition of what Rio+20 might deliver is, for the moment, the task of negotiators who have begun their final session of cajoling and arguing. Successful cajoling leads to agreed wording being added to or subtracted from the core negotiating text that leaders will fashion into a summit declaration. Ongoing arguments lead to disputed text being parked in the dreaded square brackets. Bridging the gap between what negotiators produce and what the scientists tell us is necessary is the task of their political masters, who will be in Rio from June 20 to June 22.
Aiming Low.But there is currently little confidence in the capacity and willingness of leaders to put their names to a final Rio+20 declaration that aims high. In part, that may be due to expectation management by the organizers, who learned a bitter lesson from the shattered hopes for the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. Despite high levels of political will and media attention preceded the 2009 talks, the Copenhagen Accord that resulted included no deadline for when it would be turned into legal language, no greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for 2020 or 2050, and no date for global emissions to reach their peak. The full plenary in Copenhagen also failed to formally adopt the Accord, agreeing only to "note" the document.
The lack of confidence ahead of Rio also is an acknowledgment that, for many leaders, their minds are currently focused elsewhere--on floundering national and regional economies.And it is recognition that some deep divides remain between developed and developing countries on how the tasks of responding to global environmental crises should be allocated. The world will, as it should, judge leaders by the strength of the commitments that ultimately emerge from Rio+20. And if the scientists are right, putting the bulk of the work on hold until Rio+30 will be leaving things far too late.
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