Rio + 20: Green Economy Loses, Sovereign States Win, Civil Society Disappointed

Posted on | June 21, 2012 by Stefano Gennarini, J.D. |

Rio + 20 was touted as the most important United Nations Conference ever by the UN bureaucracy led by the Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. It was also touted to be a UN Conference where we would witness unprecedented collaboration between Governments and civil society. To that end, for the past two years civil society had been invited to make submissions to the conference organizers on what they would like to see in the outcome document of the conference. To no one’s surprise Civil Society obliged, and thousands of submissions were reviewed and integrated into the zero draft (the first draft) of the document released in January -  civil society contributions are said to have made up 70% of the zero draft.

It became clear early on in the negotiations back in January that countries had a different perspective on the importance of the conference than that of the Secretary General and civil society. The two major negotiating blocks, the G77 and China on one side and the EU and US on the other were going to find it hard to agree on what should be included in the outcome document. Each country poured over draft after draft with comments, deletions, and additions, in session after session, after session, but no agreement could be reached.

On Saturday, during the conference, the negotiations came to an abrupt end, and Brazil took control of the document in order to ensure a final outcome for the conference. They released a 50 p. draft that excluded all the red line items – that is, the most debated and controversial items, that would have given the document substance. As it stands the document only contains broad aspirations for the future, voluntary measures for countries to commit to sustainability, and no hard political commitments. In addition, too many of the world’s most important leaders decided at an early stage not to attend, including Obama, Cameron and Merkel. Twenty years ago at the 1992 Earth Summit the conservative George Bush Sr. was pressured into attending. Barack Obama, who is a great lover of all things green, has sent Hillary in his stead.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, has blamed this  failure on the timing of the conference, which coincided with a global economic slowdown, and a US election year. But perhaps, there are other factors at play. The idea of designing an accountability framework for commitments to sustainable development was the major idea put forward by civil society for the conference, and was supposed to be the major outcome of the conference. But it was evident from the first round of negotiations, that countries felt uncomfortable handling this hot potato. Countries are simply not ready to make bold political commitments to a green economy, especially the G77 – made up of countries who badly need development of any kind, regardless of the carbon footprint it leaves behind.

Civil society groups expected great strides forward for the green economy, and invested heavily in the conference process, as well as spent lots of money to finally attend. In the end they were bitterly disappointed by the soft approach countries chose for accountability in the final document. But to expect that countries would have done otherwise is simply naive. The failure of the climate change treaty of 1992, and the Kyoto protocol, illustrate all too clearly that our dependence on fossil fuels is stronger than the politics of the green movement. The good news for countries, is that they will not have to deal with a new UN organ that would review their sustainability practices. This leaves countries free to chose and find the most effective and efficient ways to help their countries develop, instead of having to conform to standards put forward by a global bureaucratic elite.

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Turtle Bay and Beyond is a blog covering international law, policy and institutions. Our experts - at the UN, European Institutions, and elsewhere - explore an authentic understanding of international law, sovereignty, and the dignity of the human person. We expose those who would seek to impose a radical social vision that is contrary to these principles.

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