Rio + 20: Here we go again | by John Bellamy Foster

by Jun 9, 2012All Articles

What prospects for labour and a just transition?
Briefing Paper for Workshop on Labour Input for Rio+20
By the end of the twentieth century capitalism had evolved into a system that was if anything more geared to rapacious accumulation than ever before, reletavily independent from its local and national roots. Global financial expansion was occurring on top of a world economy that was stagnating at the level of production, creating a more unstable and more viciously inegalitarian order, dominated by neoliberal economics and financial bubbles. Declining US hegemony in the world system coupled with the demise of the Soviet Union, induced repeated and increasingly naked U.S. attempts to restore its economic and political power by military means. Meanwhile, global warming and other crucial environmental problems had crossed critical thresholds. The question was no longer whether ecological and social catastrophe awaited but how great these would be. 
1.1 Introduction
The tortured and tiring outcomes of COP 17 and other recent global Summits that promised much yet delivered little should caution anyone that hopes that the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, the so-called Rio + 20 Summit will provide real solutions to our planetary crisis. The fact that the global elite have only allocated 2 and half days of discussions to the official Summit suggests there is nothing like the expectations that accompanied the initial ’92 Earth Summit.
The goal of the summit is to assess progress made since the Earth Summit as well as address new challenges. On the agenda will be institutional reform of governance on global environment issues, which could lead to strengthening of UNEP. The most intense discussion in the preparatory process is around the ‘Green Economy’ agenda promoted by UNEP, a concept that could replace ‘sustainable development’ as the dominant discourse in respect of the global ecological crisis and the multiple crises of social well being.
Almost twenty years on, hundreds of Summits and meetings later and thousands of pages of resolutions, declarations and protocols, the situation is much worse. The issues of unsustainability in respect of global warming, eco-system degradation biodiversity, ocean acidification, inequality, food insecurity are becoming dire. As Belamy Foster notes:
“Many of the planetary dangers associated with current global warming trends are by now well-known: rising sea levels engulfing islands and low-lying coastal regions throughout the globe; loss of tropical forests; destruction of coral reefs; a “sixth extinction” rivaling the great die-downs in the history of the planet; massive crop losses; extreme weather events; spreading hunger and disease. But these dangers are heightened by the fact that climate change is not the entirety of the world ecological crisis. For example, independently of climate change, tropical forests are being cleared as a direct result of the search for profits. Soil destruction is occurring, due to current agribusiness practices. Toxic wastes are being diffused throughout the environment. Nitrogen run-off from the overuse of fertilizer is affecting lakes, rivers, and ocean regions, contributing to oxygen-poor “dead zones.”
Yet in the face of these widely recognised dangers and threats of ecological collapse, the discussions in preparation for Rio + 20 are in danger of a dramatic shift away from regulating and placing limits on the market. On the contrary, powerful transnational corporations and international business councils, increasingly over-represented in inter-state multilateral negotiations, press for the “marketisation” i.e. dramatic expansion of the commercialisation and commodification of the natural environmental and its life services.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in preparation for Rio launched their more than 600 page “Green Economy Report” (GER) that argues that the holy grail of sustainable development can be achieved through the commodification of nature, that is, placing a monetary value on nature’s environmental services, offseting and trading these on markets, via credits, much like the controversial carbon trading mechanism. In this way it is hoped that the environment can be rescued while simultaneously securing deeper and faster economic growth.
Yet as it is argued in this briefing paper, it is the market, or put more precisely, capitalism that lies at the root of the intractable ecological and social crisis.  This is the context that has stimulated a range of powerful social movements in Brazil, Latin America and across the world to come together to prepare a parallel People’s Summit to the UN’s Rio + 20 Summit.
We believe labour would do well to engage seriously with the call coming from the Brazilian Civil Society Facilitation Committee of the People’s Summit (which includes the major trade union federations in Brazil) when they say:
“We want to transform Rio +20 in a moment of opportunity to address the serious problems that humanity is facing and demonstrate the political power of organized people. ”Come reinvent the world” we need to build a new paradigm that secures the future of humanity alongside all the species of the planet.”
1.2 Multi-dimensional crisis of civilisation
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, launched at the 1992 Earth Summit, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and a host of multilateral processes were established to arrest the global environmental crisis as well as the social crises of inequality, poverty, hunger, etc. However, it is only now that many of the dangers signalled 20 years ago are manifesting themselves as grave crises, that intersect and reinforce each other representing a multi-dimensionl civilisational crisis.
The financial crisis that broke out in 2008 is a symptom of a much wider crisis of the global system. Not only does it represent a crisis of the neoliberal model but a deeper crisis of the over-productivist, endless-growth, financial-speculative model which puts humanity and the planet at great risk. In this regard we are confronted by a simple but stark reality, namely, that an economic system based on unlimited growth contradicts a limited planet.
Recently, leading scientists have proposed nine planetary boundaries, which mark the safe operating space for the planet. Three of these boundaries (climate change, biodiversity, and the nitrogen cycle) have already been crossed, while others, such as fresh water use and ocean acidification, are emerging planetary breaches. In ecological terms, the economy has now grown to such a scale and intrusiveness that it is both overshooting planetary boundaries and tearing apart the biogeochemical cycles of the planet.
This dilemma is increasingly coming to the fore in a period in which humanity and the biosphere is confronted by a series of intersecting crises. Crises around energy, food, water and the climate place resource depletion and constraints at the forefront of global attention. It is not just that we are facing peak oil and peak carbon – the problem is that we are metaphorically speaking, two minutes to midnight and the clock is ticking.
Just considering the situation from the point of greenhouse gas emissions unless there is a reduction of 90% emissions of developed countries by 2050, runaway climate change of 5 degrees will ensure unimaginable devastation and disruption to life on the planet.
We are made to believe that the very processes that have brought us to the crisis – extreme marketisation – can somehow overcome the crisis. Blue carbon, the commercialisation of the ocean as a carbon sink, especially related to mangroves, tidal salt marshes and seagrass meadows, etc. is being trumpeted under the slogan of the green economy, as the solution to the climate crisis. Extreme technologies such as geoengineering and nanotechnology under the monopoly control of giant corporations are promoted as instruments to solve the ecological crises. All this, as opposed to  taking the necessary steps to moving to a low carbon economy, overseeing a just transition that dramatically expands decent work in the service of humanity and the biosphere as the first steps to consolidating an alternative paradigm of what Latin American indigenous communities refer to as buen vivir – living well.
Since there is no way to increase the capacity of the environment to bear the economic, population and resource burdens placed on it, it follows that the adjustment must come entirely from the operating and structuring of the global economy.
Yet it is the dynamics of the global economy that has set humanity up against the limits of the planet and which is undermining attempts at arresting the global crisis. As fish need water and humans need air to survive the market economy needs increasing profit rates and unlimited growth. It is the more or less average compound economic growth of 3% that is breaching planetary boundaries. The process of neoliberal globalisation accelerates this process while creating inequality and polarisation between and within countries.
The reality of the cascading economic crisis, triggered by the 2007/8 financial crisis is not receding. Short-lived recoveries quickly give way to new outbreaks of contagion in new parts of the world – without being contained to these areas. Sooner rather than later, those economies not initially affected become infected, thanks to globalisation and the inter-connectedness of the global economy. In spite of the crisis and even though economic liberalization and market fundamentalism is increasingly seen as the cause of economic turmoil, the elites, push the costs of the crisis on to the shoulders of the poor and marginalized. As an answer to the crisis, those in economic control seek to expand the market into new spheres, such as environmental services, (biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration, watershed protection, etc.)
1.3 The Green Economy
One of the main issues for discussion at Rio + 20 is the green economy. In preparation UNEP launched in February 2011 a report promoting the green economy. The draft negotiating document for the Summit, “The Future we want” – the so-called zero draft in paragraph 25 couples the green economy to the goals of sustainable development:
“We view the green economy as a means to achieve sustainable development, which must remain our overarching goal. We acknowledge that a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should protect and enhance the natural resource base, increase resource efficiency, promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, and move the world toward low-carbon development.”
In paragraph 29 the document states:
“We are convinced that green economy policies and measures can offer win-win opportunities to improve the integration of economic development with environmental sustainability to all countries, regardless of the structure of their economy and their level of development.”
The European Union has released a road map towards the green economy where green economy is punted as a panacea for the problems gripping the global economy and of course perfunctory commitments to poverty eradication and sustainable development. This, even as it opposes the deletion of the right to development as proposed by the G77 and deletion of the common and differential responsibility principle.
However, what is not contested by any of the official parties to the Summit is the role of technology and the market. These are seen as central to the green economy.
The UNEP report proposes that governments cut environmentally damaging subsidies (fossil fuels, agriculture, etc.) and use these funds to invest in new technologies. Massive investment could enable the transition from the ‘brown’ to the ‘green’ economy, the report argues.
The focus on technologies is problematic because of the types of controversial new technologies that are promoted, including biomass incineration, synthetic biology, geoengineering, nanotechnology, etc. Nuclear and GMOs are not explicitly endorsed, but would fit with the approach.
Rational scientists recognize that interventions in the earth system on the scale envisioned by geoengineering schemes (for example, blocking sunlight) have their own massive, unforeseen consequences. Nor could such schemes solve the crisis. The dumping of massive quantities of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere would, even if effective, have to be done again and again, on an increasing scale, if the underlying problem of cutting greenhouse gas emissions were not dealt with. Moreover, it could not possibly solve other problems associated with massive carbon dioxide emissions, such as the acidification of the oceans.
The market-based approach promoted by the authors of the report assumes that nature should be precisely measured and valued, according to the ‘services’ it provides (cleaning water, capturing carbon and so on). This way nature’s services can be costed, offset and traded on markets, via credits, similar to carbon trading. Giving nature a monetary value or putting a price tag on it, is the best way to protect it, UNEP argues. UNEP presented this approach in detail at the end of 2010 with the report “The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity” (TEEB).
The approach has been heavily criticised by labour and other civil society organisations as it would mean assigning private property rights to nature, commodifying and privatising nature. Leaving nature to the market would undermine the opportunities of communities and states to protect the commons. Also the bitter lessons from the carbon trading debacle seem to be entirely ignored when UNEP proposes tradeable biodiversity credits. The UNEP reports exposes a misguided belief in markets, which is astonishing after the financial crisis. It is as if that example of the chronic failure of deregulation and market-based approaches had never happened.
A detailed reading of the texts brings one to the unequivocal conclusion that these are not the diagnoses and responses so urgently required. Instead it is a sophisticated effort to demonstrate that it is possible to resolve the problems of the planet’s environmental crises without altering the existing power structures, nor the relations of domination and exploitation. Throughout the report it is argued that the same market mechanisms and scientific and technological patterns, the same logic of sustained growth, can save life on Earth.
Driving this approach is the EU. The EU environment Commissioner Potocnik summed up the thinking by many EU officials when he said:
“We need to move from protecting the environment from business to using business to protect the environment”.
The Green Economy Report, not surprisingly, also has the support of the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The Green Economy Report does have some common sense elements, like phasing out environmentally damaging subsidies, but overall it is flawed. At the last session of the UN’s Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) there was strong civil society resistance, but also considerable criticism from the predominantly developing G77 countries. They are worried the ‘Green Economy’ discourse will replace the previous 1992 approach that emphasised sustainable development and analysis of consumption and production patterns, concepts which include a focus on north-south inequality. Some of G77′s members critiques are based on regressive motives (for example by its OPEC members who are unhappy with promotion of renewables), but much of the critique is justified.
The real danger for labour is like the concept sustainable development, the green economy proposals are extremely seductive while providing a cover for continued neoliberal policies. Edgardo Lander makes this point strongly in a critical text “The Green Economy: the wolf in Sheep’s clothing”.
“The concept of sustainable development was extraordinarily effective both politically and ideologically. It responded in terms that seemed to take into account the criticisms of the development model, while in fact reinforcing it. It functioned like a tranquilliser in that it created the illusion that effective measures were being taken to respond to the diagnosed crisis. By not questioning the logic of capitalist accumulation and the model of industrial society as the fundamental causes of the destruction of the conditions that make life possible, it provided new legitimacy to neoliberal globalisation,  which began to present itself as sustainable, despite its overwhelmingly devastating  dynamic.”
Labour activists articulate a similar concern. According to Sustain Labour’s Laura Martin, the green economy originated as a concept in 2007, when governments created “green” stimulus packages to offset financial panic. Now, some argue that it is taking away from the Summit’s real objective: sustainable development.
1.4 Green economy and Green Jobs
The allure for labour within the green economy debate is the promise of green jobs. The International Trade Union Confederation is correct to raise concerns regarding the nature of the envisaged green jobs that are held out as a carrot to eat from the green economy smorgasbord. In response to the Zero Draft they insist
“It is fundamental to ensure that these jobs are decent jobs. A green job should be one which reduces environmental impacts of enterprises and economic sectors to sustainable levels, while providing decent working and living conditions to all those involved in production and ensuring workers’ and labour rights are respected. Under this definition, several dimensions of green jobs must be taken into account: their ability to reduce environmental impacts in different sectors, their capacity to deliver Decent Work, their respect for trade union rights and their ability to enable the inclusion of women and youth in the labour market.”
Central to labour’s approach to the green economy as well as climate change is the notion of the just transition. It is well understood by labour that the current system is unsustainable, destructive and unjust. The dilemma is how to protect the livelihoods of workers that may be affected by the phasing out of those industries that pose a threat to life on the planet.
Sustainlabour, a labour movement think-tank strongly linked to the International Trade Union Confederation believes it is important to engage and shape the green economy debate in ways that secures the interest of workers and ensures decent work. According to Sustainlabour:
“It is clear that we must move towards a low carbon economy and the efficient use of natural resources, an economy that prioritises the use of renewable energy, that takes into account the lifecycle of products, that protects and restores ecosystems, that better distributes environmental costs and benefits. It is equally evident that for a Green Economy to be a real opportunity for ending current injustices it must be in keeping with the wider framework of Sustainable Development….that is, it must be consistent with the social and political aspects of sustainability, guaranteeing a Just Transition for all.
The transition towards a Green Economy will not happen overnight and neither will opportunities for decent work be created automatically. As a society, and as trade union organisations, we must defend and drive changes in the desired direction. In Sustainlabour, we believe that the Green Economy should:
  • aim to satisfy human needs: providing universal access to water, food, health, housing, education, transport, culture;
  • be based on justice: be capable of distributing the costs and benefits fairly, between and within countries;
  • be inclusive: young people, women…everyone must be part of it!
  • be a real economy: do away with the speculative economy and the economic, financial and real estate bubbles;
  • be based on the four pillars of the Decent Work Agenda: full employment, guarantee labour and trade union rights, social protection, dialogue and participation.”
However, against these good intentions is the necessity of coming to terms with the real dynamics of growing unemployment and precarious work, that are the dominant features and trends of the world economy – both in the brown and green economies.
Unemployment stands at more than 200 million, and is increasing annually. The current rate of global jobs growth, at one per cent or less per year, will not replace the 30 million jobs lost since the crisis began in 2008. Nor is it sufficient to absorb the new entrants that come onto the labour market each year. In addition, it does not take into account the number of people who are only able to secure part-time work and the millions more that have completely given up looking for work.
Even before the crisis, half of total employment outside agriculture was in the informal economy and two workers in five worldwide lived below the poverty threshold of $2 per person per day. Young people are particularly hard hit: youth unemployment hovers just below 80 million, at two to three times the adult rate.
However, the problem is not just mass unemployment. Since the advent of economic globalisation and the almost universalizing of neoliberalism, deregulation and labour market flexibility has exacerbated the phenomena of insecure and precarious work. The Trade Union Advisory Council to the OECD has highlighted this in a recent report titled, Moving from Precarious Employment to Decent Work.
The work process and the standard employment model have been changing in important ways. In part this is due to the process of globalisation, intensified global competition, technological change and corporate restructuring. ‘Flexibility’ has been pursued in ways that are selective and with adverse effects on workers, with corporate managers pushing to erode employment standards, thereby shifting risks away from firms and on to workers. Governments, through policies aimed at increasing deregulation of labour markets, have played their part in transforming the employment relationship and thus significantly contributing to the emergence and growth of precarious work over the past decades.
1.5 Confronting the dominant power relations
The actual dynamic of the labour market and the real trajectory of the global economy brings into focus the necessity of addressing the existing power structures and the relations of domination and exploitation that shape and determine investment and employment relations. Commitments and initiatives to guarantee social development, sustainable development, addressing climate change have all failed precisely for the lack of political will and power to roll back the power-shift in favour of the 200 transnational corporations that dominate the global economy. This is not to underestimate important shifts in regional and global power dynamics brought about by the emergence of the so-called emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, etc.) and the weakening, at least economically, of USA, Europe and Japan. Yet these shifts have so far, had no bearing on the hold of neoliberalism and the financial sector over policy and the global institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation.
To some extent this is recognised by UNEP which will play a critical role in determining the outcomes of Rio + 20 Summit. They acknowledge the power, influence and nature of finance capital that in today’s world calls the shots.
“The financial sector treats investments in renewable energy like any other. If a project or company has an expected risk-adjusted rate of return on investment that is sufficiently high, it is considered an interesting investment… (UNEP, p. 226)”
In its recognition that capital is completely amoral (it is all the same to them to invest in green technologies or destructive technologies, the only factor of interest is the rate of expected gain), the conclusion that the UNEP seems to reach is that the future of the planet depends on it being possible to formulate public policies capable of bribing investors, guaranteeing them sufficiently high profits to behave as good guardians of the planet. All this must, of course, be done within the rules of free trade that neoliberalism has imposed on a global scale. According to the report, it would not, for example, be acceptable to stimulate the development of investments and innovations in green technologies and products if those generate advantage for national producers that could be interpreted as protectionism.]
In this situation, the range of recommendations and political proposals that the UNEP calls for is nothing more than the naïve expression of very good intentions, without any chance of altering the current course of the planet. No set of proposals founded on completely ignoring current geopolitical realities has any hope of making a contribution to the global challenges we face today.
For this reason labour and broader civil society organisations need to go well beyond seeking to amend paragraphs of the Zero text at Rio. It would be important to formulate the indeces of an alternative paradigm as well as the various paths and avenues to get there.
In this regard the example of the emerging global campaign for millions of climate jobs is a possible model and methodology for conceptualising a just transition. In essence the Climate Jobs Campaign is a strategy of masss mobilisation based on sound research of the numbers of jobs that can be created by moving to a low carbon economy. Significant reductions in greenhouse emissions can be made by developing renewable energy, expanding public transport, retrofitting building to make them energy efficient, shifting away from industrial agriculture to small-scale organic agriculture. The power of the campaign lies in taking up the two most compelling challenges of our time, namely cimate change and mass unemployment in a single campaign. By demanding that governments create climate jobs, i.e. jobs that bring down the emissions of greenhouse gasses and build the resilience of communities to withstand the impact of climate change, and by mobilising millions of working people around these demands it is possible to begin the necessary task of shifting the balance of forces between labour and the state and the state and the market.
Campaigns like these that make sense and in their simplicity challenge the logic of the market by exposing its inability to respond to the critical issues facing humanity and life on our planet point to a different paradigm that is required if sustaiability, equality and life is to be preserved.
The reality that confronts the labour movement is that the struggles for human equality and for the earth are becoming one. There is only one future: that of sustainable human development.
John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution, Monthly Review Press
Share this article:


Latest issue

Amandla Issue #93