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Rio+20: Practical, relevant outcomes are what we need

The world is watching as Rio+20 draws closer. How is New Zealand positioned?

Vernon RiveNext week a ragtag collection of world leaders, do-gooders, moguls, Marxists, movie stars and misfits descend on Rio de Janeiro for what is billed as the largest summit the United Nations has ever organised: Rio+20, or the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. More than 135 heads of state are inscribed to attend, alongside 50,000–60,000 officials, NGO representatives, business leaders, youth, academics and other observers.

“It cannot be another talk shop,” said Sha Zukang, the Chinese diplomat assigned the role as Secretary-General of the conference, before proceeding to make a decent contribution to pretty much exactly that.

“The world is watching. Rio can deliver agreement on specific initiatives and commitments that can accelerate progress and advance well being. This can only happen by delivering actions, not just words."

Rio +20 has been convened to review progress on stakes in the ground planted in 1992 at the first Earth Summit. That occasion delivered a string of significant international environmental policy and law instruments, including the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21, the Biodiversity Convention, Forest Principles, as well as the granddaddy of all international climate change documents: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The majority of these documents are in the category of what international lawyers described as ‘soft law’. These are statements of intention generally worded in language kindly described as ‘aspirational’, and unkindly as ‘weasel words’. The UNFCCC and Biodiversity Convention were in a different category, although still at a high level, and notoriously difficult to enforce.

Nevertheless, the 1992 Rio conference marked a significant point in international environmental diplomacy. Its legacy remains today, palpably for New Zealand in the form of the Climate Change Response Act 2002 and Emissions Trading Scheme.

What are the issues this time round? Much the same as at the Rio+10 conference in 2002 in Johannesburg, which were much the same as in Rio in 1992. Can development be facilitated in such a way that will at the same time alleviate poverty, improve standards of living but retain an adequate quality of the environment?

At the 2012 conference an additional issue has risen to the surface – the perennially controversial question of global environmental leadership and governance at the UN level. A number of proposals are on the table, including a revamp of existing UN environmental institutions as well as the creation of new entities.

Unlike 1992, there is no extended list of instruments ready to be negotiated and signed. Most of the focus is on one document – as yet unnamed, but going by the working title of ‘Outcome Document’. On May 7, Kukang told negotiators, “Our objective should be to arrive in Rio with at least 90 percent of the text ready. The most difficult 10 percent should then be negotiated in Rio with the highest political support.”

A third round of preparatory talks concluded on June 2 with only 20 percent of the text agreed. This has led some commentators to predict that even if compromise is reached, the risk is it will come at the expense of delayed commitments and open-ended, unenforceable promises.

It is interesting to reflect on why the 1992 conference was able to deliver with relative ease five highly ambitious and ostensibly onerous international environmental instruments, whereas in 2012, the gathered nations seem likely to struggle to produce one non-legally binding statement.

One factor that is clearly influential in 2012 is the precarious state of the global economy and in particular, deep challenges facing developed country economies in the US and Europe layered upon the perceived economic threat of emerging economies such as China and India.

The divide between developed North and developing South has always been a feature of international geopolitics. It is heightened in 2012, as emerging economies flex negotiating muscle and old-school developed countries move into defensive mode. As seen in other recent environmental negotiations such as the 2009 Copenhagen and 2011 Durban climate talks, countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa are noticeably more self assured and sophisticated in their tactics and positioning.

The US, EU, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are now faced with bolshier demands for recognition of income and resource disparity between developed and developing nations. That creates additional challenges for the negotiations and negotiators, especially US negotiators whose masters’ eyes are on a certain upcoming date at the polls.

How is New Zealand positioning itself for the event?

At the time of writing, it looks as if New Zealand will follow the lead of the US and UK and not send its leader to Rio. (This contrasts with the 1992 event where Helen Clark was present alongside Bush, Major and, er, Castro, to inscribe her signature on the various documents concluded). New Environment Minister Amy Adams is billed to appear on behalf of New Zealand, alongside a team of officials from MfE and MFAT.

In March of this year, former Minister for the Environment Nick Smith identified oceans policy and tackling fossil fuel subsidies as key areas of focus for New Zealand in Rio, being ‘areas that are most urgent, where we can add value, and where there are good prospects to make progress’. He also said, “We will not be the biggest and may not be the loudest voice at the conference, but we intend to be one of the most practical and relevant”.

Exactly how this plays out will be interesting to observe.

I am heading to Rio on Sunday to pickup the conclusion of the prepcom, and monitor the main event on June 20-22. I'll be posting updates as the negotiations develop.

Vernon Rive is an environmental lawyer and academic at AUT University.

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