EU environment chief vows ‘concrete results’ at Rio+20

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Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik said yesterday (7 February) that the EU would push for firm international commitments on sustainable growth at an upcoming UN conference in Rio de Janeiro, saying “a day will not pass by” without the EU pressing for action.

The commissioner also said he supported more global attention to chemical hazards in line with the EU’s REACH regulation.

Poto?nik’s remarks came ahead of a scheduled meeting today with Chinese environmental officials. China is locked in a mounting dispute with the EU over its new emissions regulations on airlines and recently lost a trade challenge with the EU and other parties over Beijing’s export restrictions on vital raw materials.

Poto?nik said the EU’s own environmental standards offer a global model for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, better resource efficiency and improving the sustainability of agriculture.

Saying Europe has “the duty and the responsibility” to take the lead at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June, the commissioner called on countries to strive for binding milestones rather than general goals.

“We are trying to work hard to ensure that we will obtain concrete results,” Poto?nik said in a speech about the 20-22 June conference in Rio de Janeiro, “and I can safely say that a day will not pass by in the coming months where the Rio outcome will not be discussed in our contacts with international partners.”

On 30 January, the UN’s Global Sustainability Panel released draft recommendations for the Rio meeting, calling sustainable development a way to reduce poverty while energising anaemic economies through technology investment and resource efficiency.

But there are doubts about how much will come of the lengthy recommendations made in the 'Resilient People, Resilient Planet' report and how ambitious leaders meeting in Rio will be to make commitments when many are grappling with economic woes at home.

Ida Auken, the Danish environment minister whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, also pledged recently to make Rio a priority. But she acknowledged in an interview with EURACTIV that current economic conditions pose a challenge in achieving measurable goals at Rio.

Poto?nik’s remarks came during a meeting on sustainable development at the European Economic and Social Committee, an advisory body for EU policymakers in Brussels.

He called for setting milestones on sustainability, saying the EU is “not just speaking from the podium.”

“We have placed moving to a resource efficient, low-carbon economy at the core of our economic strategy, and as a way out of the current financial crisis towards sustainable growth,” he said.

Global REACH

Speaking to journalists, Poto?nik also said he favoured including chemicals regulation in the Rio talks on sustainability. The risk posed by “chemical pollution” is mentioned once in the 99-page UN document.

“I can’t say binding or not binding, but I would say more concrete,” Poto?nik said.

Referring to the REACH regulation on chemicals, he said: “We have reached a level of commitment in the European Union that is high, and we are seeing already that in some parts of the world they are very closely studying the way we have approached the programme and we think it’s a proper moment to address this in Rio.”

The current chemicals directive, which took effect in 2007, is due for revisions this year. Consumer and health groups pressing for ambitious changes while some national governments – including those in Slovakia and the Czech Republic – say tougher rules would hamper economic recovery.

Felix Dodds, executive director of the London-based Stakeholder Forum, told the European Economic and Social Committee conference yesterday (7 February): “To succeed, Rio will need to put more money on the table to fund the move towards an economy based on sustainable development.”

He said the EU should recommit to providing 0.7% of GDP by 2015 in development aid and find other ways to fund sustainable development projects in poorer nations. “If they do not do that, then seriously we are in danger of losing any trust in developing countries.”

EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, who was one of 22 member of the UN’s high-level Global Sustainability Panel, told EURACTIV in an interview last week that climate “is a threat multiplier in many developing countries.”

?“[W]hen you have still more people, wanting still more commodities, demanding still more food, still more energy, still more water, and on top of that as an overarching challenge, you also have climate change, then you really have the recipe for a lot more problems if you just continue business as usual instead of rethinking your growth model.”

Speaking of the Global Sustainability Report, released on 30 January in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Sarah Best of Oxfam UK said: “The Panel's report is a welcome rallying cry for the vision of a sustainable, fair, and resilient future that Oxfam fully shares. But their recommendations don't deliver the quantum leap the Panel calls for. It's weak medicine for such a life-threatening diagnosis. World leaders will need to do better when they meet at the UN summit in Rio in June.”

The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development - or 'Rio+20' – is being held exactly two decades after a landmark international conference in Rio de Janeiro.

Nicknamed the 'Earth Summit', the 1992 conference agreed a plan of action (Agenda 21) and a declaration setting out the principles underpinning sustainable development.

A follow-up meeting 10 years later in Johannesburg recognised that fundamental changes in the way societies produce and consume were essential to achieving global sustainable development. All governments were invited to promote sustainable consumption and production and a plan to reinforce the implementation of the Agenda 21 was adopted.

Hosted by Brazil, the 2012 summit will seek to secure a renewed commitment to sustainable development and assess progress made over the past two decades.

  • 20-22 June 2012: UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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