Rio+20: No change of course in sight
The UN Sustainable Development Summit Rio+20 will take place from 20 to 22 June in Rio de Janeiro. The draft of the final policy declaration has been ready since January. It is a compromise that should offer something to everyone and not scare anyone off.
The current negotiating text, ambitiously titled «The Future We Want» neither questions the dominant economic and development model, nor sets out binding measures for implementing sustainable development. The central theme of «a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty reduction» adopted by the UN General Assembly remains a vague concept that any State may implement at its discretion.
Nothing therefore speaks against most heads of state and government travelling to Rio to speak strongly in defence of their country's interests. Host country Brazil has declared that its goal is to achieve extensive participation at the highest level. The risk of that strategy is that yet another final declaration may result that everyone welcomes because it binds no-one to action. Agenda 21, the outcome of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was just such a declaration.
Not repeating past mistakes
The global action programme for sustainable development (Agenda 21) adopted in 1992 sets out a number of environmental objectives and underscores the importance of a concrete poverty reduction strategy. However, its drafters managed to gain widespread approval mainly because the text catered to numerous and at times highly contradictory interests. Hardly any differentiation was made between unequal power relations and the varying needs of stakeholders. This means that (almost) all of them can invoke Agenda 21 when it comes to enforcing their own interests. The agreement on an open trading system too was in clear contradiction of the stated environmental and development goals.
Owing to the conflicting objectives, the world has come no closer to sustainability since then. Now, 20 years on, history is threatening to repeat itself. The authors of the draft final declaration for Rio+20 are also dispensing with binding measures. They too are continuing to focus on economic growth, liberalization and free trade as drivers of development, ignoring the fact that over the past 20 years that approach has exacerbated social inequality and the ruthless exploitation of nature above all.
Host country Brazil has announced plans to make improvements to the poor initial draft. Like other developing countries and many civil society organizations, its main criticism is the insufficient attention paid to the social dimension of sustainable development. It is yet to be seen whether Brazil will succeed in improving on the relevant aspects through its own proposals.
‘Carte blanche’ for the private sector
While Brazil and other fast-growing countries in the South are not keen to press for binding environmental targets, the industrial nations care little about global justice. They are focusing on a «green economy», which is indeed less taxing on the climate and does contribute to resource efficiency, but still leaves the global economic balance of power untouched. NGOs the world over describe this «green economy» as a ‘carte blanche’ for the private sector and they reject it. In fact, one of its key elements is putting a price on nature, thereby integrating global public goods such as the biodiversity and water into the global market system. At the thematic World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January, devoted specifically to Rio+20, environmental, human rights and development organizations together with representatives of indigenous peoples voiced the criticism that with the emphasis on the «green economy», the original three-dimensional concept of sustainable development was falling into complete oblivion.
Civil society organizations are of the view that things are clearly headed in the wrong direction. They are calling for a fundamental change of direction and would like to shift the focus to topics such as human rights, social justice, small-scale agriculture and the challenges of climate change. There should be binding international agreements that hold the private sector and governments accountable, and clear, environmentally friendly and socially responsible guidelines should be laid out for financial markets and the business sector. There are also many reservations regarding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proposed by Colombia, which draw on the Millennium Development Goals and are reflected in the negotiating text.
More of the same is not enough
UN Member States still have two months to get the Rio+20 debate on a path that could help secure a breakthrough for sustainable development. Under the slogan «More of the same is not enough», the worldwide ecumenical network ACT Alliance recently challenged Rio+20 to initiate a paradigm shift. The time had come to discuss the real causes of the failures of poverty reduction and climate and environmental protection, as well as the misguided concept of development that spawned the current crisis.
Article published in: Alliance Sud News No. 71, Spring 2012