Following its failure to deliver on ambitious plans for the Rio+20 conference, Europe must redouble its climate commitments and be a more pragmatic world leader, say three MEPs involved in shaping environmental legislation.

Satu Hassi, Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy and Jo Leinen yesterday (5 September) attributed Europe’s failed effort to win binding global commitments on resource conservation and green growth to opposition from emerging economies that feared putting brakes on their own economic growth.

“I think it’s very clear that in countries where a majority of the population is poor, it would be difficult to justify policies that limit economic development while the policies of the rich world can be seen as not accepting limitations,” said Hassi, a Green MEP from Finland.

In a post-mortem on the UN Sustainable Development Conference, held in Rio de Janeiro 11 weeks ago, the MEPs said the EU has the opportunity in the coming months to put its agricultural, cohesion, international development and taxation policies more in line with its climate goals. The MEPs are all members of the Parliament’s environment committee.

Gerbrandy, a Dutch MEP (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats), said the EU now needs to be more pragmatic in negotiating bilateral trade and aid agreements to encourage sustainability.

European leaders also need to rethink tax policies, said Leinen, a German MEP (Socialists and Democrats) who is critical of taxation practices that tax workers’ income rather than resource consumption.

“Finance ministers are the last ayatollahs of the whole system,” he said, alluding to their conservative doctrine on taxation.

Battles ahead over agriculture, spending

The discussions on how to move ahead after Rio were hosted in the Parliament by Globe EU, a cross-party group that promotes sustainable development.

The event comes as MEPs prepare to debate the post-2013 Common Agricultural Policy, which includes conservation proposals that are almost certain to be weakened by national leaders.

They will also be grappling in the months ahead with the 2014-2020 budget at a time when EU member states are demanding austerity and a focus on economic development.

“The EU has started to shift to another economic model but I fear the financial crisis is stopping us,” said Leinen, who said environmental programmes are likely to be sidestepped in upcoming policy decisions. “I can feel it here in the Parliament in everything we are doing.”

Rio: ‘The future we want’

The Rio conference marked the 20th anniversary of the first post-Cold War Earth Summit, which produced landmark environmental treaties on biodiversity, climate change and desertification. Leinen and Gerbrandy were among the few MEPs who attended.

But this year’s meeting 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.

Environmentalists said the final document toothless and criticised US President Barack Obama, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron of undermining progress by skipping the event.

Besides skirting binding commitments on resource conservation and economic sustainability, Rio+20 also failed to back EU efforts to give the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) more firepower – putting it on par with the world body’s trade, health and labour organisations.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, nonetheless praised the gathering.

“The outcome document provides a firm foundation for social, economic and environmental well-being,” he said in a speech on 22 June. “It is now our responsibility to build on it. Rio+20 has affirmed fundamental principles – renewed essential commitments – and given us new direction.”