EU plays down expectations for Rio Earth Summit


Europe faces major obstacles in achieving two of its goals at the upcoming sustainable development conference in Rio de Janeiro, a top EU official admitted yesterday (24 April), but will remain an “ambitious partner”.

As negotiators in New York sift through hundreds of pages of ideas for the conference, Karl Falkenberg, the European Commission’s chief of the environmental directorate, said in Brussels that the EU was committed to its goals despite fierce opposition to some of its positions.

The EU heads to the Rio de Janeiro conference in June hoping to make a green economy based on sustainable growth one of its pillars, while also seeking to give the UN Environment Programme and possibly other UN agencies more power to oversee and enforce treaties.

But he acknowledged that “there are major questions” from other negotiators about the EU’s positions.

Worried about growth

African leaders have expressed concern about European efforts to seek binding targets on sustainable development, fearing brakes would be applied to their economies by rich countries. An expanded role for UN agencies would face almost certain opposition from the United States.

“We have to show that the green economy roadmap is not just a European concept adapted to the realities in Europe, but that it is the only sustainable way forward to help developing countries grow and lift their populations out of poverty,” Falkenberg told the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development.

Others also called for the EU to negotiate with a single voice and to seek treaties committing nations to conservation measures and targets for sustainable growth.

There is also pressure from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, with strong backing from the EU, to commit to investing in renewable electricity to end global energy poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions.

The Brussels meeting came on the second day of negotiations in New York, where national representatives are trying to hammer out recommendations that will be presented at the 20th anniversary of the first UN Conference on Sustainable Development. The meeting takes place in Rio de Janeiro on 20-22 June.

The goal is to produce a 70-page roadmap for the future.

Sharp differences have already emerged over the EU’s ideas.

Brazil's chief negotiator at Rio+20, André Corrêa do Lago, has already said the Rio conference’s host country would not support a world environmental organisation.

And it is unlikely in an election year that President Barack Obama would back such a move knowing that the opposition Republicans have traditionally resisted giving UN agencies strong powers. Last year, the Republicans sought to block money for the UN’s scientific body on climate change. The US provides 22% of the UN’s budget.

More at stake than nature

But Antonio Vigilante, director of the UN Development Programme’s Brussels office, told the intergroup discussion that the cost of failure at Rio would have devastating consequences for the world’s poor.

“Rio is not an environment conference, it’s not a conference to save nature. It’s a conference to save to save human beings. It’s a conference that has to combine the two most pressing challenges of our times – equity and sustainability – and the one cannot be sacrificed for the other,” Vigilante said.

With the UN estimating that the planet’s population will grow from 7 billion today to 9 billion by mid-century, there are mounting concerns about strains from competing demands for food production along with water, energy and other natural resources.

Dick Toet, vice president of European external affairs for the Unilever food and consumer products company, said meeting future challenges would require policy action but also corporate initiatives. He told the Parliament intergroup that his company has revamped its business model to focus on sustainable production and growth.

“We believe Rio+20 is a great opportunity to establish public-private partnerships,” he said, adding “we want it to deliver a public-policy framework for a green economy.”

Falkenberg, reflecting positions already taken by Commission, Parliament, regional leaders and the Council of Environment Ministers, said the EU was committed to being the “ambitious partner” at Rio regardless of anticipated opposition.

“We think we have to be ambitious for Rio+20, it’s not good enough to simply say … 'yes, there is a problem and please start thinking about what you want to do about this problem',” calling for targets to reduce the impact on water, oceans, land and other resources.

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.

  • 23 April-4 May: International negotiators meeting in New York to discuss draft ideas for the Rio+20 conference.
  • 13-15 June: Final negotiations for the outcome of the Rio+20 agenda in Rio.
  • 20-22 June 2012: UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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