Rio+20 talks move up a gear

Rio+20 conference New ZealandThe Rio+20 conference is making progress, surprisingly quickly. Now it's up to the politicians to engage in any further horse-trading.

With preliminaries out of the way, the second phase of the Rio+20 Conference kicked off on Wednesday for a three-day session involving more than 115 world leaders, as well as high-level political representatives joining officials and advisers who have been driving the process so far.

Under the tight rein of the Brazilian hosts, a final draft text was thrashed out at 2:18 am Tuesday morning.  It was rubberstamped without further ado at a plenary session later that morning.

It is now up to the politicians to engage in any further horse-trading, before what looks like an inevitable endorsement of the document towards the end of this week.

Major international environmental conferences in recent years seem to have settled into a familiar choreographed dance with a number of set moves.   The sequence goes something like this.  

•    1st movement – the UN appointed conference secretary-general announces that the gathered nations are at a critical point in history, the world is watching, a unique opportunity exists to avert disaster/fundamentally shift global paradigms, and failure is not an option.

•    2nd movement – lengthy, complex and tortured negotiations take place with multiple sessions into the early hours of the morning.  Civil society representatives make impassioned speeches which optimistically suggest that this time leaders might grasp the nettle;

•    3rd movement – final or close-to-final draft text is issued after difficult compromises negotiated through skillful diplomacy and liberal use of ambiguous language.  Outrage is expressed by major NGOs claiming treachery and/or betrayal and/or capture by big business/vested interests.  Statements are issued to the effect that that further participation by civil society in negotiations is considered futile and other direct action is likely;

•    4th movement – staged protests take place with strategic instances of civil disobedience, arrests and ejection of NGO leaders and acolytes;

•    5th movement – convention/declaration/decision is confirmed  (usually anti-climactically) by conference plenary, followed by dissection and analysis of the outcome. Conclusion: overall, the result is ‘a bit of a mixed bag.’

The Rio+20 conference has just passed the 3rd movement, and it looks as if the orchestra is tuning up for the 4th.    

A 2:18 am close on preparatory negotiations, just over two hours later than the Brazilian presidency had predicted for finalisation of the draft text is, it should be said, an impressive achievement. At the beginning of the week a mere 20 percent had been settled, and major rifts were apparent between key players on a range of contentious issues.

 Analysis of the final draft text is still underway, but some of the issues that have been in dispute include the following:

•    References to the international law principle/concept of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.  ‘CBDR’ was also a contentious point at the last round of climate talks in Durban in December. The concept involves recognition that developed countries will assume a greater load than developing countries when it comes to obligations to reduce or remedy environmental impacts.  

At the heart of CBDR is the proposition that developing countries should not be subject to constraints on development (or at least, the constraints should be minimal) and that rich countries should provide financial and technical support to poor countries to help them develop and improve environmental management.   Developed countries such as the US had been baulking at the placement and extent of references in the draft outcome text to CBDR.   The compromise draft text retains some references to CBDR, but not as many, and not in the same places as had been sought by developing countries during the earlier part of discussions;

•    Abolition of subsidies on fossil fuels and other environmentally sensitive activities such as fishing. As has been widely reported, Tuesday saw the relatively unusual phenomenon of fossil fuel subsidies topping the ‘trending’ charts on Twitter. 

Aided by strategic tweets from celebrity tweeps such as Stephen Fry, Robert Redford and Helen Clark, environmental NGOs are claiming a symbolic victory for at least raising the profile of an otherwise dry subject. The draft text includes a tentative call to halt fossil fuel subsidies (“We invite others to consider rationalizing inefficient fossil fuel subsidies by removing market distortions…) Unsurprisingly, this is not to the complete satisfaction of many elements of civil society;

•    Corporate social responsibility/accountability: CSR has now made it to UN declarations, in a clause that says ‘We call on the private sector to engage in responsible business practices…’  This is a slightly watered-down version of an earlier draft clause that mentioned ‘accountability’ as well as ‘responsibility’, and asked businesses to ‘apply standards of’ CSR;

•    Reproductive rights: this has been a controversial topic at Rio.  A number of countries (including New Zealand) had been pushing for inclusion in the document of references to “population dynamics” together with “reproductive health and rights”.  This has attracted the ire of some groups concerned that ‘population dynamics’ is code for ‘population control’.  The ‘Holy See’ (Vatican) has also taken a strong stance on the issue, attracting howls of outrage from women’s groups.  The draft text avoids the phrase ‘population dynamics’ but includes a commitment to “systematically consider population trends” as part of national planning;

•    Financial institutions: in a smart PR move, earlier in the week, a group of major financial institutions unveiled at Rio a ‘Natural Capital Declaration’, in which financial institutions ‘acknowledge and reaffirm the importance of natural capital in maintaining a sustainable global economy and commits signatories to integrate natural capital into their business decisions'. 

Child at Rio+20Despite that declaration – applauded by some NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund – Greenpeace announced yesterday that it is moving to a war footing against the financial corporate sectors. “We want to shut off the flow of capital,” said Greenpeace Global head Kumi Naidoo. “The time is right because the banks are at their most vulnerable in terms of public legitimacy."
So far, much of the NGO and media focus has been on the negotiations on the text of the outcome document. But it would be a mistake to judge the success or otherwise of the conference on that document alone.  Alongside those negotiations, there have been a number of high-profile and (on the surface at least) constructive initiatives whose legacy may prove just as significant as, if not more than, anything that results from the outcome document itself.

One of these initiatives was the Corporate Sustainability Forum, a pre-Rio+20 event that took place on June 15-17. Facilitated by the UN (that fact notable on its own, and indicative of a growing UN recognition of the role of the private sector in addressing global environmental issues), the CSF produced a ‘Global Compact’.  This is described as a ‘strategic policy initiative for businesses that are committed to aligning their operations and strategies with 10 universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.’  The Global Compact is referenced (if weakly) in the draft text of the outcome document.
Another Rio+20-aligned initiative was the World Summit of Legislators, which met last week at the same time as the CSF.  Legislators agreed on a Rio+20 legislators’ protocol to take back home to seek support or formal ratification. The Legislators’ Summit was attended by Green Party MP Kennedy Graham who has shared his experiences in a series of blog posts.

Alongside these formal events is the networking, exchange of ideas, upskilling of youth delegates and exposure of views to comment/encouragement/criticism.  I think this informal networking is one of the most valuable aspects of these sorts of events. Perhaps the warming and stirring of the melting pot of ideas could take place in a more organic (and less expensive) way. But there is something about a major UN summit that creates the occasion, and unlocks public and private resources to get together in a way that an online discussion forum or lower-key conference or workshop never could.

The next few days will be interesting ones. Exactly how far will green groups go in expressing their unhappiness about the current direction of negotiations, and will this have any impact on the outcome? Will anything significant emerge from the ministerial phase of discussions? Or will this part of the ritual follow a conventional course – making enough amendments to justify the leaders’ attendance – but not going much further than that?

I’ll post another report later in the week with an update.

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

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).