Saturday, December 20, 2014

Rio+20: The Elephant that Gave Birth to a Rat

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A Rio+20 press conference. Photograph by World Resources Institute.

For what was billed as an historic summit, Rio+20 finished with something of an anti-climax. The participating nations agreed on a 52-page document, which restated challenges and postponed major decisions into 2015. The past twenty years have made the results of the 1992 summit more significant than they originally were. During that summit, the world’s nations recognised the sustainable development challenge for the first time, and that it needs to be tackled collectively. The climate convention, along with others, were tangible results. The idea of Agenda 21 led to numerous local initiatives. However, the collective action problem remains, also in the climate convention. And the problem isn’t even close to being solved.

The proceedings at Rio+20 went to show that the problem sexists. The shift to the green economy rather then sustainable development was already a step backwards. The green economy cuts the social dimension out of the triangle of sustainable development. While the UN summit for the green economy was negotiated far out in Barra, civil society gathered in town at the ‘Cupula dos Povos’ (the Summit of the People).

Delegates and guest speakers talked about the problems over and over again at both events. The summit creates an ideal platform for those who like to chat. Numerous side events give more opportunities to talk, besides the negotiations. Some of them are interesting, because they lend a better understanding to what happens in other countries and some good experts were around too.

However, the events offered an opportunity to show off and to present numbers and plans. The best example was the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) event, Sustainable Energy for Africa. The Brazilian minister Marcio Zimmerman pointed out Brazil’s renewable energy successes followed by Morocco and South Africa. In the case of South Africa’s Minister Dipuo Peters I happen to know the numbers. She showcases the successes of 250,000 roll out solar water heating systems, and the $4.5 billion she secured for next year to roll out more solar water heating systems. She talks about all the different figures in the integrated resource plan in so much detail that if you didn't know South Africa, you’d wonder if it were true. She highlights the ‘not in my backyard’ mentality as a major obstacle to renewable energy technology deployment in the current 47 independent power producers that were allocated in the procurement process. She emphasises localisation as a key to South Africa’s roll out.

She says it will "make it possible that we industrialise. We participate in building green technologies, so that local South Africans can be entrepreneurs in renewable energy". She wished for IRENA to be an advocate to help increase the awareness for renewable energy, we wish the same, but before anyone could ask a question she disappeared. The WTO and ILO spoke about green jobs and intellectual property rights, the Brazilian side events about social security and a ‘bolsa verde’, a green social grant.

In their opening and closing speeches, Ban Ki Moon and President Dilma remain full of hope that sustainable development can be addressed in a format like this. By the time of the closure, according to the rumors, the European delegations had already left. The scariest comment was probably when Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environmental Program, began to talk about Rio+40.

Why did this summit fail? It is impossible to negotiate every aspect of sustainable development in three days. Years of preparation had gone into the summit. But this problem remains the same. The summit was supposedly a meeting at the level of the heads of state. However, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel stayed away. Merkel decided to show her face publicly on television as the summit ended, cheering as the German football team beat Greece in the European Championships. Priorities lie elsewhere. The format of the conference requires the participation of heads of state. If these heads of state don’t do their jobs at this conference, 47,000 other marginal delegates won’t change much either. The format does not suit it. And they won’t change the format. Therefore we end up with an outcome statement that lists agreements on the basics - as Emilio La Rovere from the Federal University put it,  "the elephant has given birth to a rat".

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