Rio+20: have we learned?


It is 20 years since Rio de Janeiro hosted the Earth Summit. Brazil is now much richer. As this year’s summit returns to Rio, how far has the country come environmentally

IN 1992, WHEN Rio de Janeiro hosted the Earth Summit, Brazil was a Third World country with huge social problems. Just 20 years later, as the 2012 summit is about to begin, it is the world’s sixth-largest economy, having overtaken Britain in March, and part of the Brics group – for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – of emerging economies.

The Brazilian economy is now worth €2 trillion, according to the country’s finance minister, Guido Mantega, who says it is now among the world’s “most dynamic”, with “sustainable growth”. Despite recession elsewhere, it grew by 2.7 per cent last year, largely because of high oil prices; it is the world’s ninth-largest oil producer.

Since 2003 its economic boom has boosted the upper (AB) and middle (C) classes by 48.7 million, which is greater than the population of Spain. Household income has continued to grow, with a significant reduction in inequality over the past 10 years and a decline, by 32.6 million, in the number of people in the D and E classes. A government programme, Brazil without Extreme Poverty, has cut the number of families living in dire straits by 40 per cent, largely due to its Bolsa Familia (or Family Grant) scheme. “To reach the poorest of the poor we have reversed the logic of waiting for people to knock on the state’s door,” says Tereza Campello, the minister for social development.

Brazil’s efforts to balance income distribution have outweighed other Brics countries, where inequality is rising sharply. Brazilians also have an overall higher satisfaction with life than people in the other Brics countries, according to the Gallup World Poll, at seven out of 10. This compares with 5.2 in South Africa and Russia and 4.5 in China and India.

The federal government’s Luz para Todos (Light for All) programme has provided electricity to 2.9 million families in remote rural areas since 2003, often using renewable energy systems such as microgeneration. It is estimated that fewer than 500,000 homes in Brazil now remain to be electrified.

It was also a sign of political maturity as well as fear of international criticism in the run-up to Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Earth Summit, which runs from next Wednesday to Friday, that last month President Dilma Rousseff vetoed 12 provisions and made 32 changes to the country’s forest-code Bill to prevent an amnesty for illegal logging and avoid reducing environmentally protected areas, notably the Amazon.

Brazil is home to about 40 per cent of the world’s rainforests and has had remarkable success in reducing deforestation in the Amazon region by almost 80 per cent since 2005. But the ruralistas, a powerful lobby of landowners and ranchers, managed to persuade the chamber of deputies to adopt the Bill last April.

Rousseff had repeatedly declared she would not accept legislation that gave a blanket amnesty for illegal deforestation, emboldened by an opinion poll last year that showed most Brazilians want to stop Amazon deforestation “no matter what”. So she exercised her right to veto parts of the forest code.

Similarly, when Norte Energia was granted a licence last June for the construction of Belo Monte, an 11.2GW hydroelectric dam on the River Xingu, after years of controversy, the government announced a range of initiatives to promote sustainable development in the region, including an increase in social services.

Brazil is a world leader in biofuels, with nearly 93 per cent of its vehicles capable of running on “flexible fuels”; a mix of petrol and ethanol derived from sugar cane. It also has a climate-change action plan that aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by more than a third before 2020, compared with a “business as usual” scenario.

Wind energy is also surging ahead. It is expected to generate nearly €10 billion worth of investments in 141 projects involving some of the world’s biggest turbine manufacturers by 2013. Within two years wind should be supplying more than 5GW to Brazil’s national grid, compared with 29MW – 0.029GW – in 2005.

Not everything has worked out so well. In 1992 the southern city of Curitiba was the poster boy for Brazil, particularly because of its innovative bus rapid transit system. But the use of public transport has declined as more people take to their cars, and Curitiba has been overcome by planning inertia.

Brazil also suffers from an infrastructure deficit that it will need to address before hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. Rio de Janeiro has too few hotels, which explains why some Earth Summit participants were quoted nightly rates of €700 by quite ordinary hotels, or opted for cheaper hostels or private rooms.

A huge security operation is being planned for Rio+20 to guard major venues, ports, airports and hotels.According to the plan, 21 of the 114 delegations confirmed to attend have been designated high-risk and will have their security reinforced. Another 40 delegations have been designated medium risk and 53 as low risk.

Negatives and positives: The environmental outlook

On the one hand . . .

* The world “remains on an unsustainable track despite hundreds of internationally agreed objectives”, according to the UN’s latest Global Environmental Outlook.

* Global atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide reached 391.3 parts per million last year, a small increase on 2010. This is expected to rise.

* Burning coal accounts for 40 per cent of all energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions, with oil at 37 per cent and natural gas at 20 per cent. Progress in “carbon capture and storage” technology has been slow.

* China is the world’s biggest emitter, followed by the US, India and Russia. But, in per-capita terms, China is in 61st place, and India lower.

* The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, which committed rich countries to reduce their emissions, covers only 15 per cent of the global total. It expires at the end of this year.

* Talks in Bonn last month made little progress, merely setting an agenda for the UN climate conference that will take place in Qatar in December.

* Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said the trend in the latest emissions data “is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees C [by 2050], which would have devastating consequences for the planet”.

* The recession has pushed issues such as climate change and consumption down the list of political priorities.

On the other hand . . .

* Global investments in renewable energy jumped 32 per cent in 2010.

* China is now the world’s leading investor in renewables.

* Mexico has become the second country in the world (after Britain) to enact climate-change legislation and the first developing nation to do so.

* Australia and New Zealand have followed the EU in setting up their own emissions trading schemes, or carbon markets.

* Germany was recently named by the OECD as a “laboratory for green growth”, with a target to generate 35 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2022.

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