Development conference was over before it started


ANALYSIS:MAYBE ONE of the ministers booked to travel to Rio de Janeiro had the measure of it. At the airport last Tuesday night, after being told that a deal had already been done at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, he simply cancelled his flight. “What’s the point of going all that way now?” he thought.

Rio+20, marking the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, was “over before it started”, as Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said. “The deal that they claim will provide ‘The Future We Want’ was watered down and agreed before heads of state and government even got on their planes,” he said.

Brazil’s absolute determination to avoid a repeat of the Copenhagen climate summit shambles in 2009 led to the early adoption of a compromise text that was characterised by Felix Finkbeiner, of the children’s initiative Plant for the Planet, as “a long, 49-page blah . . . a slap in the face for all children of this world”. “Talking alone will not stop the melting of glaciers and won’t prevent the rainforests from disappearing,” he added.

Yet, according to the UN, it was “the biggest UN conference ever held, with broad participation of leaders from government, business and civil society as well as UN officials, academics, journalists and the general public”. Altogether, it drew 45,763 people to the remotely-located Rio Centro conference venue.

There was little for the 100-plus heads of state or government and other high-level representatives to do, other than deliver a seemingly interminable series of speeches at the final plenary session, or take part in round-table discussion groups – one co-chaired by Prince Albert of Monaco – or do some sightseeing in Rio.

All government offices and even schools were closed during the three-day “high-level segment”, to reduce traffic levels in the city and clear the way for siren-blaring motorcades transporting the VIPs to and from Rio Centro – each dark-windowed car decked out with the flags of Brazil and of the relevant VIP’s country.

Almost all of their speeches were bland, devoid of passion or even conviction. None was electrifying like the speech at the Earth Summit by Cuba’s loquacious Fidel Castro – limited to just seven minutes, his powerful appeal on behalf of the world’s poor brought many African and Latin American delegates to their feet.

On Thursday night, a section of the vast food court in Rio Centro erupted with hisses when Britain’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, appeared on the big screen to deliver yet another pro-forma speech.

Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan had come under media fire at home for travelling at public expense to such an exotic place as Rio de Janeiro, and was careful to avoid going anywhere near the Copacabana seafront or the Sheraton hotel’s swimming pool, after learning that a tabloid newspaper was looking for just such a photograph.

European climate action commissioner and former Danish minister Connie Hedegaard, who chaired the Copenhagen conference before it turned into a shambles, hosted a side event “but nobody showed up”, according to Andrew Jackson of Friends of the Irish Environment. But then, there were 500-plus such events.

There was no drama, however. Rio+20 was “the first major UN conference in memory which has not turned on the results of high-wire antics”, said Alan Oxley, chairman of World Growth, a pro-development lobby group with a particular interest in promoting palm oil. “Brazil is to be congratulated for this achievement.”

Oxley’s delight at the nebulous outcome was more than matched by the dismay of others. “It’s really hard to find good news in the 49-page text,” said Bo Normander, European director of the Worldwatch Institute. “I want more of the future than this agreement’s long list of platitudes and feel-good rhetoric.”

For example, although the concept of a “green economy” is included in chapter three, “the description is ambiguous, unambitious and immeasurable [and] there are no specific targets or commitments which can bind countries to do something,” Normander said. “The EU should not have accepted it.”

Neither does it contain any pledges to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, estimated to be worth $1 trillion (€800 billion) worldwide, or to introduce a global levy on financial transactions “which could generate billions in revenue each year to eliminate poverty and tackle climate change”, as Trócaire director Justin Kilcullen noted.

One of the few positive aspects of the agreement is that it launched a process to establish sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2015, to complement the UN’s millennium development goals. The SDGs will have to be fleshed out between now and then, and it will not be easy to reach a consensus on what they should contain.

Europe went along with the deal, in the interest of making any progress at all in Rio. And tree-huggers will no doubt take comfort from the success of the UN’s PaperSmart programme, which reduced the number of sheets of paper consumed from 20 million for a conference of this scale to just one million. That’s progress of a kind.

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