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Don't worry, be happy? Rio+20 – the aftermath

Rio+20 in 2012The result from Rio is high on affirmations and statements of encouragement, and low on concrete step changes.

The much-hyped international environmental talks in Rio last week finished on Friday with a whimper rather than a bang, with the leaders and representatives of 193 nations signing off on a 283-paragraph declaration, 'The Future We Want'. The final document was the same in substance as a draft thrashed out by officials after a three day 'prepcom’ that wrapped up on the earlier Tuesday.

Most of the three-day plenary session that began on Wednesday consisted of a series of formulaic, occasionally propagandist, national statements which rarely delved deeper than scripted skite sheets highlighting individual countries’ environmental achievements or the taking of (appropriately diplomatically worded) potshots at other countries warning them off any ideas of environmental or economic imperialism.

The essential message from G77 countries: we know how to manage our natural resources, are intent on developing them, would appreciate financial assistance from the west and north but have no plans to be curtailing expansion of our economies for the sake of the environment any time soon.  The language was replete with references to ‘sustainable development’ and ‘green economy’. But despite the rhetoric, there were scant concrete signs of any ‘step changes’ towards environmentally sustainable economies.

Rio+20 in 2012

As it became clear that the document was unlikely to develop further from the Tuesday draft – long on lengthy, highly conditioned statements of intention, short on clear commitments – civil society organisations moved to distance themselves from the declaration. 

Addressing the plenary on behalf of one of the NGO “Major Groups" last Wednesday, Wael Hmaidan, director of Climate Action Network International, said: ‘The text as it stands is completely out of touch with reality.  Just to be clear, NGOs here in Rio in no way endorse this document.  Already more than 1,000 organisations and individuals have signed in only one day a petition called The Future We Don’t Want that completely refuses the current text.  It does not in any way reflect our aspiration, and therefore we demand that the words ‘in full participation with civil society’ are removed from the first paragraph.”

The words remained in the final version.

Meanwhile, UN officials defiantly maintained positive stances on both the document and the process.  It’s not clear whether anyone was comforted by the statement by Sha Zukang, Secretary-General of the conference: "This is an outcome that makes nobody happy. My job was to make everyone equally unhappy".  Or UNEP head Achim Steiner’s brave reference in his final press conference to the ‘hidden richness in this document’.  

As widely reported, the word “encourage” appears in the text 50 times, the phrase “we will”, five; “support” is used 99 times; “must”, three times. 

Amongst the small number of statements that come close to decisions or clear statements of intention are:

- agreement on a process to develop ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (‘action oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries’) which will sit alongside the existing Millennium Development Goals;

- a decision to create a ‘universal intergovernmental high-level political forum’ to ‘follow up on the implementation of sustainable development;

- a decision to ‘strengthen and upgrade’ the United Nations Environment Programme.

The bulk of the rest of the document consists of high-level exhortations, affirmations, invitations and statements of encouragement.

The New Zealand political reaction

I spoke to New Zealand's recently appointed Minister for the Environment Amy Adams on the second to last day of the conference and asked for her views on the success or otherwise of the venture.

“We set ourselves two goals coming to Rio. One was around fossil fuel subsidy reform, and the other was around better global fisheries management.

“On the global fisheries side of the equation, I think we can be pretty pleased with where we got to…[On fossil fuel subsidies reform] we would have liked to see more, of course we would, and that's what we fought for. But realistically… to even have text in there about the need to have a look at fossil fuel subsidies is huge… It is not particularly definitive. But let's not forget that it is progress.”

I sought out Green MP Kennedy Graham (the only other New Zealand MP to attend the conference) for his reaction to statements by some commentators that people shouldn't be too concerned or distracted by the outcome document itself, but rather that the real value of these sorts of conferences comes from connections made and initiatives launched.  Graham bluntly rejected the proposition.

“Don't worry, be happy?  Come on. The critical point of the conference…is to get the international community of states to emerge with specific and substantive resolutions on solutions to the global problem”

“To say ‘never mind if we’ve got a weak, wishy-washy document, we’ll be okay and it's been fun’ is about as ostrich-like as can be.”

What about Rio+20’s implications for New Zealand? 

I asked the Minister whether, from a New Zealand government perspective, we can expect business-as-usual post-Rio +20, or if she sees anything coming out of the conference which might translate to changes in domestic policy.  Take what you will from her response.

“In the wider framework in the environment space, reading through it so far, I think a lot of it is reflective of the direction that we are heading in our policy-making anyway. I'm sure that there will be parts that we look at and think, ‘You know we do need to take that, and perhaps emphasise that.’ But that's going to be something that we will take back for further consideration.”

On the specific issue of the government’s present proposals to strip references to sustainable development out of the purpose clause of the Local Government Act (a move which seems curiously out of sync with paragraph three of the declaration that the Minister went on to sign), Adams’ response was effectively: ‘don't ask me, ask Minister Carter’.

“Certainly within the resource management part of the local government activities, absolutely, [sustainable development is] central. It has to be, because that is the part at which that level of government has to be very careful in managing its resources. I agree that it has to be integrated at all levels of government. But I would argue that it is anyway. It's not the same as saying 'it must be in every piece of legislation ".  So I'm not saying that there isn't a role there, I'm simply saying that I'm not the right person to ask, so that's something that Minister Carter will need to consider.”

Graham’s reaction to the Minister's response on this?

“Doctrinally incorrect, and very politically incorrect in terms of UN documentation that she's just signing today.  Because she is saying: ‘not my job, go and talk to David Carter’.  And she's signing a document which calls for an integrated holistic approach to sustainable development across all sectors.  It's fatuous.  All the more reason why the Prime Minister should have been here…”

Further analysis

A number of useful analyses of the document are emerging.  Interesting perspectives from New Zealand include those from Rod Oram, Nicola Tokai, Graham.  Offshore, the posts by Sara Bice (Sustainable Business Forum), the  Guardian’sGeorge Monbiot, The Telegraph’s (slightly more upbeat) Louise Gray, and the New York Times'Simon Romero and John Broder are worth a read.

One of the more piercing analyses that I have seen so far is a piece headed Life After Rio: A commentary by Mark Halle of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. 

“We must put a stop to the massive waste of money represented by events like the Rio conference. If our governments are not prepared to move towards sustainability, it is better that our voting populations know this. Calling a failure a success – even a guarded success – is to paper over the ever-widening cracks in the system. So the first conclusion we must reach is that we should call a moratorium on all global multilateral negotiations and begin to address the thousands of unfulfilled promises and commitments we have made.”

Last Thursday, the Minister indicated to me that she would be going through the document with Cabinet. I doubt too many people will be holding their breath for news from that discussion.