The Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development, which took place last month, ended with a declaration, titled “The Future We Want”. This is a weak and meaningless document. It aims at the lowest common denominator consensus but says nothing consequential about how the world will move ahead to deal with the interlinked crises of economy and ecology.
The final document is being touted as a victory for the developing world, in particular, for India, because it reiterates the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. This guiding principle, hammered out following much acrimony in 1992, establishes the differentiation of action of different parts of the world. It is clearly not negotiable. So in that respect, Rio 2012 is a move ahead. But is that enough?
We need to ask why things after the 1992 Earth Summit have come to such a pass that 20 years the world is doing is to reaffirm principles that cannot and should not be rewritten. Why does the world, confronted with the dangers of climate change, destruction of the high seas and the need to reinvent growth so that it is green and inclusive, do nothing more than mouth platitudes about change? Why is the world not willing to act?
The fact is that Rio+20 has come at a bad time. Europe, the environmental missionary, is preoccupied with domestic financial concerns. The eurozone is in danger of collapse and 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 Obama Administration is facing an election year and economy is its paramount concern. It has no time for global environmental issues. Obama, who was elected on the promise of change, is shy of even mentioning the word climate.
More importantly, the US wants to dismantle the framework that puts it under pressure to act and contribute more to reduce the global environmental burden. In the US, view the principle of equity in global negotiations is an albatross that gives advantage to countries like China and India. It wants to rewrite the global agreement on this. It tried and, thankfully, failed.
But as a result every other agenda at Rio+20 was a victim. The second key aim was to establish the concept of green economy and to use sustainable development goals to measure performance against green targets. 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 that would hinder growth.
It is also important to note that the agenda of green economy was floated without an agreement on its definition. Industrialised countries look at environmental action as divorced from concerns of development and social well-being. They see environmental measures as the icing on the cake of development, already done and delivered. This icing helps improve performance through efficiency and cleaning up of pollution. 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.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 27th, 2012.