EEB chief: A mixed forecast for the Earth Summit

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Jeremy Wates, who heads one of the leading conservation groups in Brussels, says the lack of appetite for binding sustainable development commitments and stronger world environmental governments would contribute to a disappointing Earth Summit.

Jeremy Wates is secretary-general of the European Environmental Bureau, a non-governmental group of 143 organisations. He spoke to EurActiv’s Timothy Spence at the EEB’s office in Brussels before heading to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. Excerpts of that interview follow.

Some environmentalists say the first Rio Earth Summit failed to live up to its potential. Are you confident that things will be different this year than in 1992?

The world has definitely changed, but in terms of the outcome of the conference, is it going to be different? You might be asking that question from the point of view that Rio ‘92 was a success and is this also going to be a success. Or you might say Rio ’92 was disappointing.

Looking back, even though at the time we were not that impressed by the outcome, we can say it did produce some pretty interesting things. We had three major global conventions [on biodiversity, climate change and desertification] adopted there. Obviously the work to develop the text had been going on, so that was not just something you would say it was produced by the conference. But nonetheless the three Rio conventions are an important outcome.

You also had the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, you have certain principles of the Rio Declaration that developed into whole areas of activity. So I think we can probably say that Rio ’92 was a qualified success. …

So what can we expect out of Rio+20?

There are three kinds of outcomes being booted at the moment. The most obvious one is this outcome document that has been worked on laboriously over the last months, starting with the zero-draft, and we’ve seen successive drafts. …

In terms of the content of that [outcome] document, it’s shaping up to be something like a set of policy commitments rather than actions commitments. It’s very rich on nice-sounding phrases, declarations, statements about how important this is or how important that is. But the text which has been trying to propose something concrete - some clear decisions that would come out leading to some definite actions - a lot of that text has already fallen in the bin – it’s been cut out.

Can you give me an example?

The idea to establish a legally binding framework governing the rights of access to information, public participation and access to justice. … There was some text on this put in by the EU, Norway, Switzerland and this text has now been diluted.

Even the EU text wasn’t very concrete or very specific, but it was already too specific for other countries to expect.

I think there is a real bind here because if they have any hope of finishing the negotiations in time, they are going to have to not allow any new materials come in. But if they stuck with the material that’s there, then you have the risk of a rather weak document.

That brings me to the second kind of outcome. There’s a rumour going around of some kind of high-level document that would be injected into the process [by Brazil]. Given what I’ve just said about the weakness of the draft outcome document, you could say that might be a good thing. On the other hand, if the document they produce does have really concrete actions included in it, then there is the real risk that governments in three days are not going to be able to sign up to it and they are going to say this is something we are going to have to consult with for months. …

The third type of outcome is a set of voluntary commitments - and this is an approach that has really been very much pushed by the United States because it fits with their deregulatory approach, with their dislike of multilateral processes. And it’s something that we are highly sceptical about, the value of having a major conference – billed as probably the largest every conference on sustainable development issues – where actually one of the main outcomes is that people just come along and tell you what they’re planning to do and sharing that information, so there’s no added value in sense of additional decisions being taken by the body itself, by the assembled governments.

So you could say the situation does not look very good just a week away. But we have to remain optimistic and we have to push to the last for higher levels of ambition from the governments…

The EU has put a lot of effort into Rio. We’ve heard all sorts of promises about energy, water, oceans, biodiversity and so forth. Are the Europeans going to walk away from this disappointed?

Everyone who is looking for a positive outcome is going to be a little bit disappointed, but hopefully there will also be some things we can hang on to. It’s never a question of being an outright success or an outright failure. There will be elements of success and elements of failure. That’s the nature of the balance.

We think the EU has done a very good job in trying to get the discussion more concrete and to focus on really concrete outcomes. … This whole idea of the green economy roadmap – saying that is not just enough to talk about green economy principles but actually to talk about targets – and I think we are really very happy that the EU has tried to make the discussion more concrete and has put concrete elements in there.

Obviously there is quite widespread scepticism among the G77 countries about the motivations of the North in promoting the green economy concept – even though the phrase ‘green economy’ was mentioned in the UN decision that decided to have the conference, so the G77 can’t really complain too much about this phrase. What the EU is trying to do is try to pin it down and say what do you mean by that and how can we actually takes steps towards it. …

I don’t think we’re going to see many if any SDGs [sustainable development goals] actually being adopted in Rio. There’s not much time left. There may be some adopted symbolically. …

Another issue that the EU has really put a lot of effort into is strengthening international environmental government in particular through the upgrade of UNEP [the United Nations Environment Programme]. That’s something where we really support them on that issue, we think that’s very important.

The US has already said no – Brazil has already said no [to the UNEP proposal]. Do you foresee any sort of compromise?

Yes. I think the compromise is in a way not fully upgrading UNEP to become an independent agency, but strengthening it to have a universal governing council … Giving it more money, that’s going to be difficult in these financial times [but] maybe there are some ways to give it more financial independence. So I think there are some measures that can be taken to strengthen UNEP and I hope those are pursued.

But if indeed it really turns out as I said, I think this is really going to be one of the big disappointments of the conference, because it is so unbalanced that you have these different agencies dealing with labour, with health and with trade and the environment [has no such power].

You mentioned money. Do you think countries like the United States and the EU countries – the big donors of the world – are they walking into this handcuffed financially?

It’s happening at a very bad time. One of the key things that the G77 and the South want is either money or technology transfer – they want support to make this transition the north in particular is telling them we all have to make. It also doesn’t help that it’s an election year in the United States, so it’s going to be difficult for Obama to go out on a limb, whereas if it were a year later, if he is in his second term, we could have maybe hoped for better input from the United States.

I think the other thing the G77 need – and this has less to do with money – I think they really want a clear signal from the North that we in the EU recognise we need to substantially reduce our ecological footprint. We are living way beyond our means in terms of looking at the planetary resources and what constitutes a fair share of those resources. …

In fact the EU is doing some useful things to try to address that issue – it is not doing enough, absolutely not – but it is doing some useful things. But I think in terms of communicating a message, the EU is failing to get that message across, that Europe is serious about substantially reducing its consumption of resources.

But what kind of message does it send that the 27 countries can’t even make a commitment on something as simple as energy efficiency.

Unfortunately, this makes the EU less convincing. It undermines its credibility when it goes to Rio. The fact that it isn’t able to come with strong positions, that it hasn’t been able to agree on a 30% target in the climate talks – admittedly because of only one country blocking having targets.

You are talking about Poland?

That’s right.

So I think there is an important link between the EU’s domestic progress and its credibility on the world stage.

Recent [environmental] reports by the UN, OECD and others paint a rather gloomy picture looking ahead. Is this anything that can be done in a practical sense politically that could change this?

That’s the bad news: if we don’t do anything, we’re really in deep trouble. The good news is some of the ways to resolve the environmental crisis are also ways to resolve the economic crisis. And I think that’s what the green economy concept is about. …

But the problem is when you actually come to talk about a practical measure, a concrete measure that will actually make a difference, then the very same governments who say that the solution to the two crises is intertwined, that they are resisting the very measures which are needed to do this.

Look at something like green public procurement. You have all these huge amounts of public money that are being spent that you can theoretically put all sorts of conditions on the spending on that money to ensure that it’s spent in a green and equitable manner … but they don’t do it and they don’t want to have binding measures.

We are hearing a lot these days about companies having sustainable development and sustainable purchasing policies. What is your take on that?

When there is no comparability, it is very hard to evaluate these statements. And that’s why were are trying to have some kind of common, harmonised approach to assessing these kinds of claims. … I think there is the risk of green wash when you don’t have some kind of harmonised standard.

And those standards should come from industry themselves, or from the EU?

Our preference is that see it as the role of governments to govern. I know that’s a radical idea, but I think some governments have really abdicated their responsibility to actually regulate and there has been a trend towards deregulation and we think that’s a mistake.

Regulation makes sure that you bring everyone along, where the voluntary approach means that it’s good for the leaders and the front-runners, and maybe they get some commercial advantages from doing so. But then you get the stragglers who are left behind so you don’t get a level playing field …

If you could leave Rio with world leaders agreeing to one thing, what would that be?

We haven’t seen any legally binding instruments being developed for adoption at Rio, and many parts of the text which refer to starting to develop legally binding instruments – most of them have been taken out. There are still some elements that have a hope of getting through.

In terms of what still seems to be a possibility, one very specific outcome that would be useful would be a decision to develop a legally binding instrument on sustainability reporting by companies. … I think to have a common standard and a binding standard by requiring large companies having an obligation to have sustainability reporting … that would be one very specific outcome in terms of developing a concrete process. …

I’m not really answering your question very directly, because you said one and I’m coming up with several. But I think the upgrading of UNEP would be fantastic. But I don’t see it happening.

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