The unofficial guide to Rio+20 Sustainability for sale?
The upcoming Rio Earth Summit gives us a window into a fierce battle for the future of global environmental action. Danny Chivers explains what it’s all about.
Many people don’t even know it’s happening. But from 20-22 June more than a hundred heads of state, along with an estimated 50,000 representatives from businesses, NGOs, trades unions, local government and others will gather in R io de Janeiro for the 2012 UN Earth Summit.
The conference’s official website makes it look like a friendly gathering of world leaders and other ‘stakeholders’ from business and civil society. However, underneath the surface layer of polite discussion documents and optimistic press releases, a battle is raging.
Harmless-sounding phrases like ‘green economy’ and ‘sustainable development’ have become grounds for bitter dispute, as different
14 ● N ew I n t e r nat i o nal i s t ● J U N E 2 012 rio+20 The Big Story governments and business interests attempt to redefine these terms to meet their own agenda.
Like a door that swings unexpectedly open to reveal a family squabble, the 2012 Rio Summit gives us a glimpse of an argument that’s been rumbling away largely out of the public eye – an argument about the future direction of intergovernmental environmental action.
This year’s event is commonly referred to as R io+20 as it falls exactly two decades after the famous 1992 Earth Summit in the same city. That earlier UN conference is often cited as a key moment in the history of environmental politics: it established the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the R io Declaration and Agenda 21.
St o c k p h o t o
The price of everything While these measures contained many fine words and good ideas, they didn’t have much regulatory force behind them and relied on voluntary actions by governments, business and civil society.
This row of well-meaning policy sandcastles have spent the past 20 years being eaten away by a rising tide of fundamentalist free-market economics, unfettered financial speculation, and consolidated corporate power.
As a result, any environmental and social gains from the first R io summit look small next to the destruction wrought by a voracious corporate sector and by governments obsessed with growth in GDP before all else.
Global inequality has increased, natural habitats have been degraded and climate talks have been stalled by a mix of corporate lobbying and self-interested political horse-trading.
Much of this has been done by companies and politicians under the banner of ‘sustainable development’ – sustainable in this case meaning ‘able to keep making money into the future’.
A shift to a genuinely sustainable society will require us to challenge these negative forces, rein in the excesses of corporations and markets, and build an entirely different
Large polluting industries... like mafia bosses invited to a meeting on reducing gang violence economy based on wellbeing for the many rather than profits for the few.
But R io+20 shows little sign of achieving this. It could make things worse. The preparatory Green Economy Report launched by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2011 provoked outrage among NGOs by focusing on market-based and technological responses to the environmental crisis, rather than the underlying economic and political causes.1
Silvia R ibeiro from the campaign group ETC Mexico points out: ‘Collapsing financial markets in Northern countries mean that banks and other investors are now looking desperately for new areas of expansion and speculation. We can see these desires leaving their mark on the R io+20 process. The “Green Economy” now under discussion would unleash a wave of risky but lucrative new technologies such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology and climate technofixes. This isn’t about finding the best environmental solutions: it’s about creating profitable new investments.’
Another key theme of the 2011 UNEP report – which had investment banker Pavan Sukdhev as a lead author – was that placing a financial value on natural systems, cycles and habitats would allow markets to price them properly, and thus prevent them from being degraded.
This approach has broad support from many Northern governments and institutions like the
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