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Environment Carnival 1/6/2012
Environment Carnival
Najib Saab
June 2012, Al-BiaWal-Tanmia (Environment and Development)
Will the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) turn to an environment Carnival? Most likely, yes. The Conference is not expected to come out with any real commitments. Among the fifty thousand participants, just a few heavy-weight heads of state will attend, while the conference seats and the beaches of Rio de Janeiro will be filled with conference tourists and international bureaucracy professionals, which strips the occasion of its “summit” label.
Yet, one advantage about the Conference is that, unlike previous summits, expectations regarding its outcome are very low. The media coverage about the European football championship or the Olympic Games, which begin shortly after, surpassed that of Rio+20 by many folds. When expectations are low, a weak outcome will be less shocking. It is clear that the financial and economic crises dominating the world had taken its toll and weakened the will to take practical decisions regarding environmental issues. But whereas the global economic crisis has been prevailing for four years, little progress has been actually made over the past 20 years in the implementation of what was agreed at the first Earth Summit in 1992.
The world participated with great enthusiasm in the Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago. The conference focused on environment and development, and resulted in a plan named Agenda 21, which covered targets in four main sections. On the socio-economic level, Agenda 21called for combating poverty, changing production and consumption patterns, and controlling overpopulation. As for environment, it called for the conservation and management of resources as a prerequisite to development, in addition to the reduction of pollution and management of waste. It also strengthened the role of civil society in development work at the international and local levels. Finally, Agenda 21specified the means of implementation including science, training, technology transfer and financial mechanisms. A major outcome of the conference was the creation of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) which was mandated to finance environmentally sound projects in developing countries. The initial Rio decisions received an almost universal welcome. However, they were considered in some circles, especially among conservatives in the United States, as a plot devised by “radical environmentalists” with the aim of obstructing global development.
The Millennium Summit of the United Nations issued, the “Millennium Development Goals” in 2000, which set levels and dates related to health care, universal primary education, eradication of extreme poverty and environmental management; most of which remained unimplemented. As a follow-up on the global folklore, the second Earth Summit, or “Rio+10”, convened in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002. The name of the conference changed from “Environment and Development” to “Sustainable Development”; apart from that, nothing new resulted from the conference which I described then in an editorial as “the summit of disappointment”.
The 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm placed the issue of the environment on the international agenda. Evidently since then considerable progress has been made in adopting environmentally friendly policies and practices, and an almost universal understanding about the interrelation between environment and development has been reached. Moreover, the term “sustainable development” has become part of the daily vocabulary of finance and economy leaders, who until recently considered environmental concerns as unattainable intellectual luxury. “Green jobs” are now generally accepted as serious options for addressing the problem of unemployment, and waste recycling as well as solar and wind energy turned into profitable businesses.
Environmental diplomacy led to the emergence of international treaties dealing with desertification, biodiversity, marine management, chemicals, the ozone layer and climate change, though effective to variable levels. It also led to the establishment of regional cooperation groups, such as the “Mediterranean Action Plan” (MAP) and the “Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment” (ROPME), through which various states with political differences participate in the management of shared environmental resources.
“Rio + 20” does not promise to be as effective as the Earth Summit twenty years ago. This is the year of the US presidential election, political changes and financial crises in Europe. Meanwhile the political failure at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference is still prevailing, and was asserted by the complete failure in the last climate change conference in Durban in 2011, following a promising opportunity offered by the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun. All this shows a lack of decision-making capacity. While there is agreement on diagnosing the problem, governments are reluctant to prescribe treatments, for fear of financial obligations. Under these circumstances, it is very unlikely to see a large number of key heads of states in Rio, which will hardly make it a “summit”. Many fear that this Rio conference will turn into a travel and leisure event for some developing nations’ leaders, a stage for boring speeches of expired dictators like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and thousands of dreamers from the civil society.
In addition to the failure of the negotiations to reach adequate common grounds, preparations were a complete failure; for despite the millions of dollars spent on preparation, hundreds of major organizations and some of the most prominent speakers did not attend because organizers delayed finalizing the registration documents. They eventually filled the gap by inviting a mix of people to fill in, for events such as the Sustainable Development Dialogue hosted by the government of Brazil. Other bodies, such as the European Parliament, declined to participate, in protest against skyrocketing prices of hotels.
In contrast to this slackness, recent years were abounding in compelling scientific evidence that environmental conditions were deteriorating and natural resources alarmingly depleting. There might even be no time for remedy: disputes over natural resources are growing rapidly around the world, and so the Rio Conference is hoped to respond to this warning and provide an opportunity for real commitment to the implementation of programmes of previous summits to control the decline.
Whereas most policies and decisions are driven by economic and financial considerations, international meetings on environment and sustainable development, from Rio to Johannesburg to Rio again, have a moral task that involves at least providing present and future generations with the necessary conditions for survival opportunities and decent life. However, Rio+20 does not have any chance to achieve a breakthrough with respect to the major issues facing the world, including mitigation of climate change and alleviation of poverty and hunger. But it is always good to have people from all parts of the world meeting and talking.
It is a fact that international conferences generally do not achieve immediate success, but they may constitute a suitable basis for agreements. These conferences do not yield great promises unless the civil society presses in this direction. Even if such promises are made, implementation needs decisions at the national level to approve budgets and legislation.
Although what was implemented of the 1992 Earth Summit promises fell much below expectations, these have, at least, set benchmarks and targets to be sought. The 1992 Earth Summit resulted in the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity, and other instruments that have defined the scope of work during the last two decades. However, the momentum originating from these agreements is fading away. With the deadlock of climate change negotiations, it seems that the issue of climate has been frozen. Equally, the aspiration to realize a global shift to a sustainable future has been reduced, under the pressures of economic and financial crises, to modest goals.
Between Rio 1992 and Rio 2012, the disease has been diagnosed, and treatment has become known. But writing juicy prose on sustainable development and green economy is not sufficient. We have to revert to the root cause: What hinders implementation is the failure of the international community to adhere to the promises of 1970, when the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution to allocate 0.7% of the gross national product of developed countries as development aid to poor countries. The rate then was 0.35%; today it has dropped to 0.22%. Can Rio+20 agree on a plan to implement the 1970 promise?
Sustainable development requires a shift in the patterns of consumption in rich countries. Developed countries, in particular the United States, do not have the right to demand from the developing world to reduce emissions, when the average carbon emission of an American resident is ten times the average of that in India. Change also necessitates transferring technology, supporting scientific research, and financing the transition to sustainable development. This, in turn, requires developed countries to fulfill their historic obligations and the developing states to undertake their responsibilities towards their peoples, which means that there should be more representative governance that fights corruption and pursues real development rather than simply relying on foreign aid.
Finally, we hope that Rio+20 will at least keep the door open for some hope, and will not turn into a boring environmental carnival.
(This editorial was published in Arabic on 1/6/2012)

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