Life after Rio: ‘No excuse to do less’

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SPECIAL REPORT / Disappointed over the failure of the Rio summit to produce ambitious commitments on sustainable growth, conservationists say Europe must now redouble efforts to tackle its own environmental challenges.

Replete with declarations on sustainability, poverty reduction and expanding electricity to disadvantaged people, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development’s final document contained none of the firm commitments on resource conservation and economic sustainability that EU officials and environmental groups had urged.

“When governments come here with absolutely no ambition, it will mean that their documents have no ambition,” Asad Rehman, head of global climate and energy campaigns at Friends of the Earth in Britain, said from Rio de Janeiro.

The conference also failed to lay out a plan backed by the European Union to give the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) more firepower – putting it on par with the world body’s trade, health and labour organisations.

EU must ‘do more’

Saying he was dispirited by the lacklustre outcome of the 20-22 June meeting, German MEP Jo Leinen (Socialists and Democrats) said the EU shouldn’t back down on its own environmental agenda.

“Rio should not be an excuse in Europe to do less, but should be a motivation to do more because we have a special role to play,” said Leinen, a member of the Parliament’s environment committee and one of the few MEPs to attend the Rio conference.

He said Europe’s economic successes have inspired others, “so we have to adjust the model or reinvent with [a] sustainability agenda.”

The conference marked the 20th anniversary of the first post-Cold War Earth Summit, which produced landmark environmental treaties on biodiversity, climate change and desertification. But this year’s event produced no major binding deals and the 100 leaders attending signed off on a conference document - The Future We Want - that was negotiated in advance.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, nonetheless praised the 49 pages of mostly voluntary pledges.

“The outcome document provides a firm foundation for social, economic and environmental well-being,” he said in a speech on Friday. “It is now our responsibility to build on it. Rio+20 has affirmed fundamental principles – renewed essential commitments – and given us new direction.”

Business involvement

Despite widespread disappointment in the conference, participants said there were bright spots.

Leinen – who was part of a informal European Parliament delegation since the body decided to sit out the conference due to high travel costs – said businesses were beginning to recognise the value of greener growth.

“I never saw so many businesses than at this Rio+20,” he said in a telephone interview. “Intelligent business leaders have well understood that sustainability is fundamental for doing business and an unsustainable world will distort and destroy business.”

Neil Hawkins, vice president of sustainability and the environment at Dow Chemical, agreed, saying that 24 multinational companies committed to ramp up protection of ecosystems.

“From my perspective, the Rio meetings were extremely successful for business,” the US-based executive said on the final day (22 June) of the three-day Rio conference.

“Governments around the world are facing a lot of different challenges, as are businesses, but in these targeted areas I see a lot of leadership from business that really crystallised at Rio, and coming out of it I expect to see a lot of momentum.”

Keeping subsidies alive

But the absence of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron doomed the chances of audacious outcomes. And environmentalists blamed the dearth of global obligations in part on business pressure.

The Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels group that monitors lobbying in the EU, warned of “unprecedented levels of industry activity” at Rio.

Asad Rehman of Friends of the Earth accused oil companies of blocking any hope of getting world leaders to commit to ending fossil fuel subsidies that the International Energy Agency estimates exceed $400 billion annually. He also said energy companies diluted UN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative by ensuring that oil, gas and nuclear power were not excluded.

With Rio, “We haven’t really gone backwards, but we’re haven’t gone forwards,” Rehman said, adding that activists now need to focus on the grass-roots.

“What a lot of organisations are saying here is that what really needs to happen is we need to be taking the fight back to our national [governments], back to the EU, and try to deliver the transformation at the national and regional level.

“We need to be able create the political constituencies and the political will so that these types of international summits are actually successful,” he said.

Positions: 

The sombre mood was evident the first day of the three-day meeting in Rio de Janeiro, with Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard twitting from a meeting hall that  "nobody in that room adopting the text was happy. That's how weak it is."

Staffan Nilsson, president of the European Economic and Social Committee, expressed regrets about the lack of commitments at Rio. But he said: “The road from Rio is as important as the road to Rio. From now on, we are in implementation mode.

“The EESC will continue to act on the Rio+20 follow-up within the EU and with its non-EU partners, in order to promote, facilitate and enable civil society input into policy- and decision-making processes so that we can really achieve the future we want.”

Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth’s director of policy and campaigns, said: “The current deal on the Rio table is really scraping the barrel – with woolly definitions, old ideas and missing deadlines, it doesn’t come close to solving the planetary emergency we’re facing.

Rio+20 is a missed opportunity, but definitely not a complete failure, Dutch MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) said in Rio de Janeiro. The EU had hoped to create a global and ambitious agreement on the road towards sustainability, but unfortunately interests were too far apart, he said in a statement.

"While countries were blocking a more ambitious text they already work hand in hand with organisations such as UNEP, UNDP, civil society and the front-runners of the business community to green their economies. It is a world turned on its head; we have a weak text but strong ambitions and progress on the ground. This only underlines what a missed opportunity this was", Gerbrandy said.

"Companies like Unilever, General Electric and many others emphasise that they can only stay competitive by becoming more sustainable. There is a green revolution taking place that will radically change the world. Environmental policy used to be driven by governments, but now it is civil society and business in the driving seat."

José Graziano da Silva, director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, said countries were seizing the moment to transform sustainable development into action through the Rio+20 conference.

“The common vision that is emerging from the Rio+20 document that countries are negotiating reflects the urgencies we have today: the urgency to end hunger and extreme poverty, while preserving the environment and our natural resources. We are seizing the golden opportunity to bring together the agendas of food security and sustainable development to build the future we want,” said the FAO leader said.

Danish Environment Minister Ida Auken and EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said in a joint statement at the start of the Rio conference: 

“Today the world has indicated that we must move towards sustainable development, and the inclusive green economy is a central pathway to achieve this. The EU has remained committed and constructive throughout the negotiations, and has spoken with one ambitious voice. We are pleased that this delivered results. However, we recognise that Rio is just the beginning and a range of activities have to be followed through at international level. The EU is committed to eradicate poverty and to improve people’s lives while significantly reducing pressures on the environment.”

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