Too bad no one really wanted sustainable development


 by Adrian Fernandez Jauregui
Rio+20 has come to an end. After an almost two and a half years long process governments finally came to an agreement just before the heads of state and ministers arrived to Rio de Janeiro. The outcome 49 pages text  was inaccurately called ¨the future we want¨, but then re-named to Our common vision. It was tough, even for them, to present the document using the initial title. 
By the end of the third Prep-Com meeting and only few days before high level representatives arrived to Rio, delegations had agreed, ad referendum, only in one third of the of the text, but the most contentious issues remained on the table. In the corridors one could feel the tension and preoccupation, it seemed that the negotiations were going to be a complete catastrophe. Two speculative theories competed on popularity; some thought that this summit will conclude with a regression on agreements and declarations from various UN conferences. Others, thought that negotiations were going to collapse and negotiations were going to be suspended. 
None of these two happened. As previously decided, Brazil took over the control of the negotiations and established new rules. Brazil presented a new text that ¨reflected everybody's interests and concerns¨. As the Brazilian chair said, ¨the new document made everyone a bit happy and a bit unhappy, that was the best compromise¨. It was a take it or leave it option; and they took it. 
Yet, a better outcome doesn´t mean a good outcome. The document that all countries agreed upon reflects only the minimum common denominator shared among all. There is no ambition what so ever. There were three main objectives for this conference: assess progress to date on regard to the implementation of the Agenda 21 document; identify new emerging challenges; confirm and renew political commitment to sustainable development. The conclusion is: after 20 years, objectives are still far from being achieved, some more than others, mainly because of unfulfilled commitments over Means of Implementation (MoI) from the developed world;  there are a number of new challenges that represent further complications to sustainable development, climate change, environmental degradation, and the financial crisis are just examples; countries have struggled to re-commit, and only modest new commitments were made, unfortunately they don't match the challenges we face. 
It is hard not to wonder, how did we get to this point of chronic incoherence and blind denial. The imaginary world in which international politics takes place ignores planetary boundaries and climate change, extreme inequalities and social instability around the globe, and the fact that current economic models are about to collapse. In that world political impossibilities are the only limitations. Only that logic explains the outcome. They achieved what was politically possible, or as the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, said ¨the outcome represents what the global community can achieve at this moment in time¨, but that is clearly not what was needed. And what was possible was defined by three big coalitions: the EU and South Korea, conservative and overdeveloped countries (Japan, US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and others), and the G77+China.
The Eu and Korea position was all about protecting the environment and stimulating the green industry (their industry), but their proposals . Their proposals lacked the social component, especially on issues that concerned the global south, such as poverty eradication, food security, access to land, among others. They had a strategy that consisted of three elements: upgrade UNEP to a specialized agency that will have greater power to enforce environmental programs; lay the foundations for a (read: their) green economy roadmap that will incentivize green growth (although not clearly defined, it refers to economic activities that are low carbon intensive) while creating the environment to face out harmful subsidies, such as fossil fuel; and the creation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG´s). Their overall objective was to change the rules of the game of development in a way that will favour their model of development and own industry.
The block of conservative overdeveloped nations showed up with a completely different agenda that had little to do with sustainable development. In fact, these countries pushed used the platform of Rio+20 to fight battles that belonged elsewhere, in some cases to the WTO (subsidies, Intellectual Property Rights).For example the US fought heavily in the section of Food security and nutrition and sustainable agriculture against the right to food and supporting the inclusion of GMO´s. Canada tried to eliminate any mention of the right to water (they are a country with plenty of that resource) while making sure Fossil Fuel Subsidies are maintained, especially for production. Japan, as well as US and others pushed very heavily to achieve tougher Intellectual Property Rights (IPR´s). And, as a general trend all of them avoided to take  new responsibilities while at the same time ¨acknowledging¨ the role of the private sector. They almost didn't even re-commit to previous agreements (Official Development Assistance, technology transfer, reduction of consumption partners) or reaffirmed important documents such as the Rio principles.
G77+China surprised no one with its traditional rhetoric about the need for social and environmental justice, principles like equity, CBDR or polluter pays, and its popular repertoire against the mercantilization of nature and the dangers embedded in the capitalist system; it did surprised many when doing concessions and making the real demands. Although their arguments were valid and in most cases probably also genuin, the block had also a hidden (its priority is denied) agenda that consisted on maintaining a development model based on the predatory  natural extraction and carbon intensive activities. 
There three major political powers defined what was possible for this negotiations. And negotiators did their best to draft a document within those limits. As the Brazilian chair said, ¨the new document made everyone a bit happy and a bit unhappy, that was the best compromise¨. At the end everyone got a little bit of what they wanted and a little bit of what they didn´t wanted. 
Too bad no one really wanted sustainable development… 

  1. Nathan Thanki

    Nice post, Adri. A good summary of Rio overall, even in just the title! I wonder if you could write a little more on the internal politics behind the G77 position? Especially regarding the emerging split between the BASIC countries and the small island developing and least developed countries…because that is where the EU puts pressure to divide. I also think that we should turn the table and look at the where and how the EU (usually considered an immovable mountain) can be split in its position. But that’s for a later date.

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