05 June, 2012

What can we expect from Rio+20

Sergio Abranches

Rio+20 can still arrive at a relevant outcome in spite of the dismal results of three rounds of negotiation at the United Nations headquarters in New York. But this outcome will certainly fall short of expectations and scientific requirements. The most a meeting with the characteristics of Rio+20 could achieve is to decide on a set of minimum ground rules  for countries to build the architecture for a future green, low-carbon, low ecological footprint economy.

There is little chance that a meeting such as Rio+20 would adopt decisions that bind countries to pursue the path towards sustainability, before the countries themselves are prepared to adopt the necessary policies. The top down model of decision-making will never work. A global framework for sustainable development will gradually emerge from domestic models of transition to the green economy. It will be a generalization of common elements of diverse domestic decisions, from a bottom up process of decision-making. Rio+20 comprises a large variety of issues and a heterogeneous conglomerate of countries, from oil producers to oil importers, from super-rich to super-poor nations, from mature to emerging powers. This broad agenda of issues coupled with a highly heterogeneous assembly of nations generates a complex and dense network of conflicting views, different standpoints and contradictory interests. Some deadlocks are absolutely unsolvable through a consensus-based model of decision-making such as the one adopted at the UN. There are too many veto points to remove.

What can we therefore expect from Rio+20 that goes beyond a declaration devoid of substantive content? Two things, I think, neither of them easy to obtain, but both feasible outcomes depending on the quality of leadership during negotiations. First, avoiding delegates to reopen issues that have already been closed at previous meetings on other fora. Second, that negotiators agree on minimum ground rules from which to build the future edifice of global sustainability, as nations move forward on their domestic sustainability policies. Internal forces and the growing strength of the emerging green economy would make some countries to progress faster than others. The emerging green economy is already gaining scale in some countries, giving rise to a new sectoral productive dynamics, creating jobs and generating new clusters of economic and political interests which will become progressively stronger policy agents. These first-comers will accumulate competitive advantages, and the logic of competition in the global market will lead others to catch up.

The transition to a low carbon economy is inexorable. The doubt remaining is whether it will come more as an anticipation to the approaching limits to growth under the present high-carbon economy, or as a response to an overwhelming  climatic, environmental and politico-economic crisis incurring heavy social costs. The the high-carbon economy will have rapidly growing costs and diminishing returns over the next few decades, whereas the emerging clusters of the green economy will have rapidly decreasing costs and increasing returns. But this foreseeable movement does not mean the transition from one to the other will be automatic or will happen at the necessary speed. For this transition to be fast and cost less it needs a combination of incentives to the low-carbon economy and disincentives to the high-carbon one. It depends on pricing and regulating carbon and other environmental diseconomies.

Just a perusal of the discussions of the ‘Zero Draft’ of Rio+20’s resolutions gives us a clear idea of the breadth of issues that negotiators are trying to address in a few weeks of talks. The document mentions almost every economic, social, climate and environmental issues that other fora and meetings within the United Nations structure have been dealing with for decades. Between Rio-’92 and Rio+20 there has been a considerable growth of specialized institutions to deal with issues related to the civilizatory progress of humankind, and planetary sustainability. Rio-’92 gave birth to two major conventions, the Climate (UNFCC) and the Biodiversity (CBD) ones. There has also been tremendous progress on the knowledge about climate change, loss of biological diversity, health effects of almost all kinds of pollution, water scarcity, desertification, melting glaciers, damages to the oceans and so many other aspects. New multilateral and domestic legislation has instituted some degree of regulation on several dimensions of the climate and environmental underpinnings of our existing modes of development. There has been considerable advance in the use of non-conventional renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar all over the world. The best approach possible for such an encompassing conference is to simply reaffirm without questioning decisions already made within the UN structure by these same parties, and to focus on issues that are still lacking an adequate framework.

It is not simple nor easy to do that. First many lateral issues, that belong to other agendas, but can legitimately be viewed as components of human development, determine conflicts of interests among countries that have very different economic, social and political models of governance, and are at different levels of social, economic and political development. The need to account for structural differences, and to entrenched ideological and religious views prevents such a meeting to attain any maxima on any issue. All one can hope for is for a minimum common denominator on a few key issues. Minimum ground rules upon which the world can progressively build the architecture for development that is more adequate to meet the challenges of this century. This architecture will encompass different, contrasting, even adversary modes of development. Provided they they are all pointing towards a low carbon, low footprint outcome this is the best future we can hope for. Let there be a diversity of solutions. We will get better following many different paths, than forcing one way only towards our common goals.

Acknowledging that the best result possible will always be a minimum rather than a maximum or even a solution that justly fits our needs does not mean we should stop asking for more than the system is able to yield. We should aim at the maximum possible at each stage of negotiations, at every fora, and keep demanding for more afterwards. Only persistent political pressure will lead us to progressively arrive at the standards required by the urgencies of our time. This is the only chance to get a minimum that is a bit higher than we would obtain without any political heat from civil society.

The target of our pressure has to be primarily domestic governments. Because of the shortcomings of the top down UN approach, we need to get local and national governments to move faster ahead so that they are more prepared to accept higher multilateral standards at each turn of  the global political machinery.

Two main issues should be targeted at Rio+20 under this reasoning. The first one is to get a clear, as specified as possible, mandate for the nations to design quantified sustainable development goals that, once in place, could become a blueprint for each country to pursue its own mode of transition to the green economy. The second one is deciding on a structure of governance that has the power and the means necessary to monitor and verify the implementation of the sustainable development goals. This structure should be able to acquire knowledge and to collect data about the sustainable development goals so that we can measure progress and improve our targets as we implement them. Some of the knowledge and data required are dispersed within the UN structure, some will have to be developed from scratch.

These are key issues, that, so far, have not been adequately addressed by any organization or any meeting. They are what we can really expect to be the Rio+20 legacy.

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