Article, Rioplus20
06 March, 2012

Rio+20: still in search of ambition

Sergio Abranches

Brazil wants an ambitious outcome to the Rio+20 summit. Diplomats say, however, that they will work to prevent this outcome from being exclusively oriented towards environmental issues.

I asked ambassador Andre Correia do Lago, how could that be. As a projection of Rio 92, the Rio+20 Summit should be all about the environment. Correia do Lago is Brazil’s chief negotiator, and head of the Environment Department at the Brazilian Foreign Ministry. He answered that this question begs an important conceptual distinction. One that opposes a sort of “neo-malthusian environmentalism” to a model for effective sustainable development. The first, he argues, has as its main target the conservation of natural resources and birth control, regardless of economic and social concerns. The latter is a “work in progress” since the Brundtland Report put forward the idea of sustainability. More progress has been achieved at Rio 92, leading to the Climate Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. In Johannesburg, at the Rio+10 summit, the concept of sustainability was further clarified, he argues, by adding the “three pillars” of sustainable development: the social, the economic and the environmental.

Ambassador Correia do Lago sees some of the proposals for the Rio+20 summit as coming from a “pre-Stockholm” mentality. An extreme conservationism that would be greatly detrimental to the needs of the developing and emerging nations. He claims that one of the major challenges for the Rio+20 is to “incorporate the environmental dimension into the reasoning of economic decision-makers”.

Correia do Lago says that this is the reason why Brazil strongly supports the commitment to ‘sustainable development goals’ at Rio+20. This summit could represent far more than the written resolution that is under negotiation. I argued that formal negotiations would only take place on the week before the summit starts. He agrees that the schedule is too tight, but ongoing informal conversations could help to build the necessary consensus to give more substance and efficacy to the Rio+20 resolution.

Brazil was, at first, trying to avoid turning the Rio+20 summit into an extension of the Durban climate talks, at COP17. At the time the Rio+20 agenda started to be negotiated there was little hope that any meaningful outcome would come out of Durban. Against these expectations, the Durban talks produced a clearer mandate, and a timeline for the global negotiation of a new climate change regime. The risk of preemption of the Rio+20 agenda by the climate agenda has been sharply reduced. This effort has diverted part of the initial discussions of the Rio+20 agenda, and only after Durban this agenda has really began to take shape. I would argue that the Earth summit’s agenda is itself a work in progress.

The Brazilian chief negotiator says Brazil agrees that the Zero Draft lacks ambition. Several developed and developing countries say the same. Yet, there has been little progress so far towards a more ambitious outcome. Brazil will host an informal meeting this month of countries from the Latin America and Caribbean region to discuss the Zero Draft and to try to arrive at a more consensual regional view. In April, the Brazilian government will host another informal meeting open to all interested countries. But a group of 40 or 45 more influential countries representative of all regions will be expressly invited to this informal round of talks. Negotiators hope this will help to remove some stumbling blocks on the way towards a better proposal for the summit’s resolution.

Negotiators and observers from other countries, especially the G77+China are also of the opinion that the Zero Draft lacks ambition. There is a political puzzle to be solved: there seems to be consensus on the Zero Draft’s lack of ambition, but there is no agreement on the set of issues that would lead to an ambitious and meaningful resolution. One of the reasons for this puzzling situation is that there are cross-cutting cleavages producing deep fractures within and among the several groups that seem so far intractable. In other words there is a negative consensus, but several deadlocks prevent a positive consensus from emerging. Although there still are some elements of the traditional North/South divide, it is no longer the dominant one.

Since Copenhagen, the interests of the small island states ant other developing countries have diverged from the interest of large emerging economies, although they’re all under the umbrella of the G77+China. These divisions have given far more effective voice to other groups, such as the AOSIS, representing the small island states; the BASIC (Brasil, South Africa, India and China); and the African Union. Developed countries are also divided among themselves. The European Union and the United States have very different views and interests regarding several issues at stake in the climate negotiations as well as at the Rio+20 Summit.

A Chinese political analyst told me that even within the BASIC there is an increasing differentiation of views.  This analyst thinks that although the BASIC has been active only at the climate change negotiations, it should have its role enlarged to help building consensus among its member-countries on the Rio+20 agenda. There are some signs that the Brazilian government holds a similar view, particularly regarding sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Informal talks may be a working tool to reach consensus around some issues, and an agreement on a set of meaningful decisions. Under less strict “rules of engagement” they may very well help negotiators to sort out and fractionalize conflictive issues reducing the area of conflict, and creating the environment to solve one piece of the puzzle at a time. These informal meetings have been helpful in Cancun, during COP16, and in Durban, during COP17.

Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action, was in Brazil last week to discuss the Rio+20 outcomes. She said that it would be “extremely important” that “Rio delivers a tangible outcome, something citizens could relate to”. She proposed a “paradigm shift, into a more green economy, into more green growth”. Connie Hedegaard stressed the fact that “there are specific things we can do”, like agreeing on a goal to give global access to renewable energy. According to the Commissioner we know how to do it, we have the technological means to do it, what we need is the political decision to do it, and to secure the financial means required. Other goals, she argues, are not as clear at this point. Governments should commit to format them adequately on a short span of time so that they could be adopted as soon as possible.

This view coincides with the Brazilian outlook for the Rio+20 outcome: a few clear decisions on the steps towards a green economy, and a clear mandate, a guideline, for the  definition and adoption of a few relevant decisions, including the sustainable development goals (SDGs). What I would extract from all the diplomatic fuzzy wording is that SDGs could be decided during the Rio+20 Summit with a clear mandate and deadlines to format them conceptually and methodologically on the short run, so that implementation could begin within a few years.

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