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Rod Oram’s Rio Blog #5

Written By Rod Oram, Rod’s Rio Blog #5, Tuesday 19th June:

The cop-out

Can the US and Venezuela agree on anything? Yes, they can when the come to the UN’s Rio+20 summit on sustainable development.

At 2am this morning they sided with Canada, Japan and Russia to block a commitment at the summit to seeking stronger governance of the seas.

The moment typified the surreal atmosphere as Brazil, the summit chair, pushed through final negotiations on the text world leaders will consider when the summit opens on Wednesday.

Brazil expunged any thing troublesome left in the draft and declared the negotiations complete. It was a curious triumph of chairing yet no observer suggested in the aftermath that heads of state might seek to reopen the issues.

So what’s left is 283 paragraphs of concerns and aspirations without any goals, targets or strategies by which nations, or indeed the international community, might work towards more sustainable economies, societies and ecosystems.

Instead, the document decrees the summit will hand back to the UN the responsibility to progress the issues.

NGOs were quick to decry the failure. For example, Greenpeace said the summit had “lost an historic opportunity” to start protecting the seas properly; and a group of women’s organisation were outraged, for example, that the text backtracks significantly on the commitments made to women on sexual health and reproductive right agreed at earlier conferences.

“It’s pathetic,” said Jim Leape, the head of WWF. “If this text proposed by Brazil is accepted, then the last year of negotiations has been a colossal waste of time. If you saw this document without knowing what it was supposed to be, you might think Rio+20 was convened as a seminar.”

Yet, it could have been worse, observers said. The US, consumed by its pending presidential election and rising hostility to environmental legislation, had tried to backtrack on the 27 sustainability principles agreed at the Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago. These have become the backbone of many sustainability policies and strategies around the world.

But other countries should share some responsibility, observers added. Brazil, mindful of the failure of the Copenhagen climate change negotiations in 2009, is focusing intently on an efficient rather than an effective summit.

The EU kept saying it wanted targets and commitments but was reluctant to push the issues given its pre-occupation with austerity and economic turmoil at home and unwillingness to meet developing countries demands for more financial help on their hard to cleaner, more sustainable economies.

And developing countries, divided on many issues within their G77 grouping, balked at any hint of monitoring and reporting, mirroring their position in climate negotiations.

Crucially there was widespread disagreement on what a green economy is. Developed countries see it as a way to maintain their lifestyles but making it more environmentally sustainable; developing countries see it as a way to improve the lives of their people but they worry about the costs and complexities and whether developed countries will use green standards to discriminate against their exports.

Instead, the summit document resorted to language around ‘green policies’, leaving each country to define for itself what they mean.

But the US even tried to block that, observers said. It tired to overturn the language of the Earth Summit 20 years ago and current climate negotiations that call for “common but differentiated” national commitments.

The language of the document, entitled Our Common Vision”, speaks for itself.  All the heads of state will be agreeing to is a long list of general statements about the world.

All but a few of the 283 paragraphs start “We” followed by any one of these apparently inter-changeable words: recognize, acknowledge, affirm, encourage, call upon, stress, support, note, urge, reaffirm, invite, agree, recall, highlight, reiterate, welcome, commend, adopt, resolve and underscore.

In a few paragraphs they get bolder: “We commit…” but these are to general statements about a sustainable future.  Once a while they really push the boat out: “We commit to observe the need the need to ensure access to fisheries…”

To show they care, heads of state will sign up to some hand-wringing: “We are deeply concerned that one in five people on this planet, or over one billion people, still live in extreme poverty, and that one in seven—or 14 percent—is undernourished…”

And, heck, they are really worried about climate change: “We reaffirm that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and we express profound alarm that emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise globally. We are deeply concerned that all countries, particularly developing countries, are vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, and are already experiencing increased impacts including persistent drought and extreme weather events, sea level rise, coastal erosion and ocean acidification, further threatening food security and efforts to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development. In this regard we emphasize that adaptation to climate change represents an immediate and urgent global priority.”

Fine, but who’s going to do anything about it?


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