Rio+20 What Is at Stake | by T Jayaraman, Shruti Mittal, and Divya Singh Kohli

by Jun 9, 2012All Articles

There are major issues at stake in the Rio+20 Summit on Sustainable Development to be held on 20-22 June. Yet governments of developing countries have not given adequate importance to the run-up to the conference. As has happened in the climate change negotiations, the outcome draft now under negotiation shows a concerted move to rewrite the terms of global environmental governance. There is an attempt to push through the decidedly narrow and environmentally defi ned “green economy” and there are moves to dilute the importance of development for poverty eradication. Backed by an arsenal of research on environmental economics, the North is out to set a policy agenda that the South is fi nding it diffi cult to catch up with.
In contrast to the enormous interest in climate negotiations, the forthcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development to be held at Rio de Janeiro has thus far evoked much less comment  in India and indeed globally. This is unfortunate, since Rio+20 (as it is commonly known) marks an important milestone in the evolution of global environmental governance with serious implications particularly for developing countries. A large number of heads of state and government are to attend the summit (20-22 June), including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and all his colleagues from the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group. While at this point it appears that President Barack Obama of the United States and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom may not be present at Rio, this may well change, raising the stakes at the 20th anniversary of the original Earth Summit.
For India, in particular, Rio+20 is likely to develop into another test, much along the lines of what transpired at Durban in the climate negotiations. The divisions that have emerged in the so-called “informal informal” consultations on the draft of the main outcome document of Rio+20 (the “zero draft” as it is referred to) have many similarities with those seen in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process and in particular at the 2011 Conference of Parties (COP 17) meeting at Durban. While formally the two sets of negotiations are independent, it is obvious that the developments at Rio would have a major impact on the progress of the climate negotiations.
What, concretely, is likely to be achieved at Rio, less than a month from now? As envisaged in the United Nations General Assembly resolution 64/236 of 31 March 2010, Rio+20 has three major objectives. These are: to secure renewed political commitment to sustainable deve­lopment, to review progress and ­remaining implementation gaps and to assess new and emerging challenges. Further the resolution also called for the summit to focus on, “among others” as the resolution notes, the themes of (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development. Despite the qualification (“among others”), in practice the green economy and the institutional framework question have come to be the two key themes of Rio+20.
Unexceptionable Objectives?
Prima facie, the objectives and focus of Rio+20 may appear unexceptionable. There is no question that two decades after the Earth Summit, the question of global sustainability has become one of the foremost issues facing humanity. Our deepening knowledge of the problem of global warming has dramatically underlined the significance of sustainability at all levels, from the local to the global.
At the same time, the climate issue has graphically demonstrated the considerable difficulties in putting Earth on to a trajectory of sustainable development. Twenty years of climate negotiations have shown that the urgency of the need to act is no guarantee that concerted global action will indeed be forthcoming. To put it more accurately, some concerted global action does emerge from and progress, of a limited kind, is made through the multilateral process. But these advances, so far, are either inadequate in scale or in a form that deepens the deep rifts between nations, especially between the developed and developing, on key considerations such as equity or paying adequate attention to the imperatives of development.
Move to Dilute Equity
All indications are that Rio+20 will follow this pattern in broad outline.
Even more it appears that the success of the Durban Platform on climate change has serious implications for the debate around the “zero draft” (as the draft of the outcome document is referred to), that began post-Durban early this year. The principles of equity and common but differentiated responsi­bilities, for instance, are squarely in the sights of the developed countries. In the negotiating text of the “zero draft”, the developed countries, led by the European Union (EU), have moved to delete, or propose alternate wording, for almost every single reference to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, whether inserted by the Group of 77 (G77) and China or present in the original draft text prepared by the UN.
The general strategy of the developed countries has been to insist that only general references to the “Rio Principles” (drawn from the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development) are acceptable. However even the references to the Rio Principles have suffered dilution with terms such as “in accordance with” being replaced by the weaker “should be based on”. Post-Durban, it is also not surprising that the occurrence of the term “developing” is sought to be radically diminished, being substituted by reference to least developed or vulnerable countries. Similarly, every a reference to the term “agreed commitments” (read the responsibilities of developed countries) has been marked by the US for deletion!
However, in many ways the specific character of sustainable development itself makes multilateral negotiations on the subject far more complex than climate. Sustainable development, dealing as it does with all natural resources, their uses and the impact of all human activity on the environment, and bringing into its ambit economic as well as the sociopolitical dimension explicitly, is a concept with substantial reach. As a consequence of this very fact, sustainable development is also less specific, especially with regard to quantification of its implications or measuring its impact at the macroeconomic scale, in comparison to global warming where indicators such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are clear and unambiguous. This lack of specificity is increasingly being reflected in the negotiations today where super­ficially unexception­able terms, when elaborated, turn out to be quite problematic, especially for developing countries.
Green Economy
A fine example of this is provided by the debate over the term “green economy” that has become one of the most contentious issues in the run-up to Rio+20. ­Superficially appealing, it is a concept that has neither general acceptability (despite its appearance in UN-speak) nor academic acceptance. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines a green economy as “a system of economic activities related to the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services that result in improved human well-being over the long term, while not exposing future generations to significant environmental risks and ecological scarcities”. Elsewhere it adds the term “social equity” after human well-being. In another clarification however, the UNEP again points out that “practically speaking, a green economy is one whose growth in income and employment is driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of bio­diversity and ecosystem services”.
It is evident that whatever the conceptual verbiage, the practical thrust of the green economy concept is one-sidedly environmental, in striking contrast to sustainable development, that today, 25 years after the Brundtland Commission, does not miss out on the social and economic dimension. While the developed countries have been pushing for the term green economy, the G77-China have been pushing for limiting its role and ensuring that it is framed within the scope of specifically sustainable deve­lopment and poverty eradication. G77-China have emphasised that the green economy approach is only one of the routes to sustainable development, and have pushed for clarifying what it should and should not include, whereas the developed countries have lined up to focus uncritically on the concept. These differences are sharply illustrated by the proposed changes in the draft text where every major reference to green economy is contested.
Other major concerns with the green economy language for developing countries include the fear that it will open the door to “green” trade barriers and protectionism, while there would also be interference with domestic ­policies that take into account national circumstances such as subsidies for the poor, in relation to fuel, energy, and ­bioresources.
Private Sector
A striking feature of the “zero draft”, ­reinforced relentlessly by developed country interventions, is its insistence that the private sector will take the lead and its uncritical references to the role of markets and “getting prices right”, limiting the role of governments and the public sector in sustainable development. As one commentator has waggishly noted, “polluter pays” seems to have been replaced by “pay the polluter”.
Sustainable Development Goals
Another important arena of contestation is the role of the so-called “sustainable development goals” and the extent to which such goals are to be enunciated and made explicit in the final outcome document at Rio+20. The lead in this, indeed as in much of the environmental thrust in the amendments to the zero draft, has been taken by the EU that has called for a “road map” for the green economy, with specific goals and targets. It even announced that it had specific goals for five sectors to be incorporated in the draft text, which it has modified in the face of G77 opposition. Nevertheless it continues to try and achieve the same objective by pushing other proposals for inclusion in the draft text elsewhere. In another problematic move, there are calls to subsume all inter­nationally accepted goals such as the Millennium Development Goals (that are weak enough to begin with) within a general framework of Sustainable ­Development Goals. The justified fear of developing countries is that this will be yet another move to marginalise poverty eradication and development in the ­global agenda.
The specific proposals for goals and targets illustrate exactly the kind of ambiguity that the developing countries have to face in these negotiations. On the one hand, some proposals call for targets that appear unexceptionable, such as improved access to water. However in an annex to the proposals for targets, the EU makes it clear that the means of achieving this is through a Global Water Partnership that will promote public-private partnerships in various parts of the world, while at the national level all countries are committed to adopting effective water-pricing policies, that will recover costs including ­environmental costs and payments for ecosystem services. Other proposals calling for assisting small farmers call also for “improving access to local and global markets”. Even if many inter­national environmental non-governmental organisations do not sanction these specific goals or targets, their call for universal adherence to any ­sustainable development goals (in the process burying common but differentiated responsibilities) that are to be adopted, adds to the pressure on the ­developing countries.
Whether such strong goals will ­indeed be adopted and whether the deve­loping countries will permit their passage in an even modifed form remains to be seen. However, the key significance of the negotiations over the “zero draft” is that it is an orchestrated attempt to rewrite the terms of global environmental governance, away from the original principles that were enunciated first in the report of the Brundtland Commission and then subsequently at the Earth Summit in the form of the Rio principles.
Policy Research in the North
A little discussed aspect of the global sustainability debate is the arsenal of policy research that the developed countries deploy in their favour, based on fundamental work in areas such as environmental economics. The North is in the process out to rewrite the intellectual and ideological terms of discourse of sustainable development in general and in specific areas such as climate change. The developing countries have, how­ever, little by way of knowledge capacities to fall back on, in terms of alternate viewpoints and perspectives and detailed policy research based on them.
The position of the developing countries is seriously weakened by the fact that notwithstanding their pleas for ­equity or regulating the market in international negotiations, their domestic policies, as framed by their ruling elites, share the same perspectives as the very policies that they oppose in the ­global debate.
It must be added that even outside the ruling elite, there is as yet little clarity in tackling the array of conceptual and practical questions that need to be dealt with if sustainable development is to become a reality.
The run-up to Rio+20 suggests that it would be erroneous to assume that the developed countries are disinterested in dealing with questions of the environment and sustainability. As at Durban, the message is that they indeed take global sustainability seriously. But it would be mistaken for groups and movements in developing countries that are fru­strated by the behaviour of their elites, to assume that such global regulation would benefit their people. In their search for sustainability, the developed countries look for solutions in terms that dictate to and impose on the rest of the world which would primarily safeguard their interests and which would offer ­little concession to the global South, especially the major emerging economies.
It is certainly possible for the deve­loping countries to stave off the current pressure from the developed world at Rio+20, and this is quite likely to be the major outcome at Rio later this month. But much more will need to be done, by way of both thought and action, by the governments, civil societies and people at large of the deve­loping nations if they have to prevail in the making of a world that is both sustain­able and equitable.
T Jayaraman () teaches at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences; Divya Singh Kohli and Shruti Mittal are at the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies, TISS, Mumbai.

Source: EPW Vol – XLVII No. 23, June 09, 2012
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