SPECIAL REPORT / Europe faces an uphill battle to convince world leaders to buy its plan for strengthening global environmental governance at an important sustainable development conference later this week.

The plan to empower the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), strongly supported by conservationists and the EU institutions, is part of an ambitious European agenda to set global conservation targets and lead a transformation to leaner and greener economic growth.

But plans to morph the Nairobi-based UNEP from a talk shop into an agency with powers like the UN’s influential trade, labour or health bodies may make little headway at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

“I think this is really going to be one of the big disappointments of the conference,” said Jeremy Wates, secretary-general of the European Environmental Bureau, a non-governmental organisation that has credited the EU with pushing the proposal.

Austere times and sharp resistance by the United States and even Brazil, the Earth Summit host, to expanding UN powers are to block any big overhaul of the UNEP, Wates acknowledged in an interview with EurActiv.

Janez Potočnik, the EU environment commissioner and one of the architects of Europe’s Rio agenda, said talks leading up to the 20-22 June conference have not been easy.

“After tough negotiations in New York, unfortunately not enough progress has been made,” he said, “so we have some intense days ahead of us in Rio and we have really high hopes that Brazil, as a the host country, will engage that with a strong ambition.”

Big event, small expectations

Billed as the largest-ever UN conference and coming two decades after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, weeks of preparatory discussions are expected to produce global pronouncements on food security, natural resource protections, clean energy and sustainable development.

But analysts expect few of the binding targets and commitments that European officials and activists had hoped for. For example, the EU is facing resistance from developing nations to advance its “green economy” ambitions, fearing it would slow growth or impose restrictions on their own plans to grow out of poverty.

“We need to be cautious about the current pitch on green economy,” Arjun Karki of LDC Watch, an advocacy organisation for the world’s least developed countries with offices in Brussels and Kathmandu, said at a recent UN trade meeting in Qatar. He added that “we are sceptical about the new forms of development assistance” linked to sustainable development.

Simon Upton, the environmental director for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), also said rich nations need to be careful that the drive for a green economy did not lead to economic dislocation for those working in older industries, such as those dependent on fossil fuels.

“Governments have to keep money in reserve for the people who might be hurt by the transition to a greener economy,” he said by telephone from Paris. “There’s a very important social element to this.”

Remember Copenhagen?

Meanwhile, in a feared repeat of the 2009 Copenhagen climate change talks where the European hosts were left sidelined by the United States and China, EU delegates face almost certain opposition to binding climate and development targets.

US President Barack Obama is not due to attend – a diplomatic brush-off for such a high-profile international gathering – and instead will send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Washington has already come out against strengthening the UNEP.

Yet the Democrat president had little choice but to avoid taking a leading role at Rio given his re-election battle with Republican challenger Mitt Romney and repeated scraps with congressional Republicans over environmental and international programmes.

Courtney Hight, deputy political director for the Sierra Club, a US conservation group, said the Republicans who control Congress have “stopped and blocked” the Obama administration’s climate and environmental agenda.

She told EurActiv in a recent interview from Washington that Obama has not been as ambitious on global environmental issues as his supporters in 2008 had hoped, but that his Republican challenger would be far worse.

“Romney has repeatedly said he does not see carbon as a threat and questions the science of climate change, [and] I do no foresee him in engaging in the international community. We would see huge steps backward with Mitt Romney in the White House in terms international climate actions,” Hight said.

Water and food security

At Rio, the stakes are high. Strains on water, food supplies, energy, minerals, air quality and land will grow as the world population grows by some 2 billion by 2050 – the equivalent of two Indias today. Calls for action have come from predictable fronts – ecologists and anti-poverty campaigners – but also from some of the world’s largest corporations that are concerned about declining resources.

Despite gloomy forecasts about the outcome of Rio, some delegates say not all hope is lost – and hope for possible surprises.

EEB’s Jeremy Wates says it’s possible world leaders could agree to develop a legally binding agreement on corporate sustainability reporting – something some international firms are already doing. Advocates say this would make companies more conscientious about their purchasing and manufacturing, and make consumers more aware about the impact of products they are buying.

But more ambitious outcomes are unlikely.

“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,” Wates said.

“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.”