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Earth Summit: The Future We Want

Politics / Climate Change May 10, 2012 - 11:18 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleUnlike global warming, which is deservedly losing credibility and traction very fast, institutional and political inertia keeps the drive for sustainability in apparent high gear, but the definition of sustainability and how we achieve it is now heavily politicized and an open guess.

The UN's coming "Rio + 20" conference, 20 years after the first Earth Summit conference in the same city is hoped by its organizers to be the forum for getting  consensus on big steps towards organizing and funding a long-term and wide-ranging global action plan titled "The Future We Want". The problem is not all players want the same thing, have different timelines and pressing political issues to resolve in the immediate short-term. On May 7, after two weeks of closed door negotiations, the UN's PrepCom (preparatory committee) for Rio + 20 had to admit looming failure: PrepCom negotiators made up of representatives from all 193 member states of the UN, had to proclaim they could only reach "limited success" on defining the plan.

Their revised plan was more than symbolically reduced from an initial proposal of 200 pages, to less than 100 pages.

Exactly like the Durban climate meeting of December 2011, the protracted negotiations which broke up on May 4, signalled failure in view. Ambassador Kim Sook of South Korea, one of the co-chairs of the PrepCom said delegates had expressed "disappointment and frustration at the lack of progress" on reaching agreement for a UN master plan aimed at a green and sustainable future.

RIO + 20
The first problem is the future we want today is almost certainly not the same future that leaders said they wanted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992, when the fear of global warming first hit the headlines. At the time, global warming was the New Thing but despite this, environmental and bioresources, food shortage and clean water supply themes were at least as high up the 1992 agenda, as global warming, green-clean energy and the end of the oil age. Sustainable development is now vastly more complex by its definitions, and a minefield of unwritten red flag issues; "sustainable" is anything but the focused clear-cut political issue it once was. In addition, and for the developed OECD countries of the North, "sustainable" and "alternate energy" have become almost the same thing, and green energy takes the lion's share of sustainable development action, in the North.

Making matters even more difficult for achieving a true international consensus, the keyword "sustainable" is now itself nearly impossible to define in less than a couple hundred pages of small print text: in turn this mean that political dispute is not just possible, but almost guaranteed. Hopes by PrepCom that 90 percent of the text would be agreed before June 20, and only the difficult 10 percent would be negotiated at the highest political level, are almost surely doomed.

Underlining how complex "green and sustainable everything" has become, one criticism of the coming Rio + 20 conference is that too many governments are using the talks to undermine established and agreed principles for sustainability. Many PrepCom delegates, from the South, said the North is now tending to ignore many of these principles, such as human rights, international, generational and sexual equity and avoiding sharp downturns in the economy which threaten job creation and job security - and have drifted back to the easy way of chasing growth all ways they can, not making polluters payers, and always acting too slow as environment crises pile up, one upon another.

The Earth Summit of 20 years ago, the name of which many remember but the content of which is almost totally forgotten, was able to agree and propose a kind of Universal Green Economy knowing this was light years away from reality. It was a set of nice intentions, how it would be organized and funded was left for some day ahead - like 20 years ahead.

Today, as climate negotiations since the ill-fated Copenhagen meeting of December 2009 and Durban meeting of December 2011 have shown, ever more strongly, even the concept of "the green economy" and its relevance and meaning to the Global South and Emerging economies is politically charged to the extreme. Media and politicians in the South often put it this way: Why should the South stunt its economic growth to bail out the North's own failed attempts to run a clean ship ?

Key themes like sustainable consumption and production of industrial goods in the OECD North, and its impact on social justice, growth and livelihood, and environments and bioresources in the South are now a minefield. These themes span everything from resource extraction and raw materials supply, to technology transfer, trade, workers rights, community rights and womens rights. As we know at least since Copenhagen and even better since Durban, the OECD's one-seventh of the world's 7 billion population still takes and burns 50% of the world's oil and nearly 60% of its gas: its credibility, let alone its moral position in preaching low carbon and Save the Planet is very low. Its claimed role of setting an example cannot resist even the simplest list of resource consumption rates per capita, comparing North and South.

In a statement released May 4, the United Nations identified several of the contentious issues which prevented agreement on the first proposed agenda for the Rio + 20 conference.

Some developed countries, the statement said, have embraced the green economy as a new roadmap for sustainable economic and human development, while many developing countries are more cautious, asserting that each country should choose its own path to a sustainable future. In particular, the South believes that proposed goals set out by the North for a breakneck transition away from fossil fuels are unrealistic - first the South has to move towards fossil energy, before it can move away. They also say that questions as basic as adequate food supply for everybody are not sufficiently high up the North's radar screen, and suspect the North's green economy approach as possibly leading to green protectionism and limiting economic growth and poverty eradication in the South.

Nonetheless, the UN statement said, virtually all countries appear willing to agree on several issues, including the basic need to recognise the key challenges and act to meet the most pressing global and national needs. The UN statement highlighted a large degree of agreement on the need for action "to provide for a growing global population that continues to consume and produce unsustainably, resulting in rising carbon emissions, degraded natural ecosystems and growing income inequality." 

The statement went on to suggest that new Sustainable Development benchmarks can be set up to guide national deciders in achieving specific targets in a specific time period, such as access to sustainable energy and clean water for all. This however was already a step too far, as some countries have sharply different views on what these goals mean, as well as the process for how and when the goals may be defined, finalised and agreed to. To be sure, this will be followed by the key question: who pays ?

Carbon emissions, which at least since 2009 are a radically divisive issue in North-South negotiations, are now further removed from the negotiating table by the virtual collapse of the "only possible theory" of runaway global warming, supposedly only due to tailpipe and power plant emissions of CO2. Global warming was only a theory: it was whipped to death as a crowd-pulling theme, and fell on its own sword. Carbon emissions have been rising, now, for over 10 years with no discernible rise in average temperatures - the theory is dead - but institutional inertia gives a lingering afterglow. Natural ecosystems however and very surely go on being degraded, income inequality grows everywhere, especially in the OECD countries, and natural resources disappear on the one-way trip from mines and processing plants to municipal waste dumps. As several members of PrepCom from the South said, off record, the huge weight and inertia of the global economy and one-size-fits-all lifestyles makes our job very difficult.

The PrepCom and UN sites of course list the areas that really will shape the future: jobs, energy, food, water, urban development, the world's oceans, environmental risks and catastrophes, but in the North sustainable development has been pushed into an energy-only mould. In OECD countries, as much as 60% of all sustainable development spending and activity goes to the energy sector alone.

This ignores or sidelines the major potential for doing things right - linking agriculture, forestry and fisheries with the fight against deserts and more sustainable urbanism, to provide nutritious food for all and generate jobs while supporting people-centred rural development and protecting the environment. Needing many critical inputs - technology, land resources, labour and funding - these sustainable development projects remain critically underappreciated and weakly applied, today.

The major problem is that presently our soils, freshwater, ocean fish resources, forests and biodiversity are being rapidly degraded - which is a crisis at least as challenging as running out of lower cost oil. Climate change, which is real and therefore not the same thing as global warming, is putting even more pressure on the world's resources. As we know, according to UN FAO, about 925 million persons are hungry in the world but an additional 2 billion people may be expected by 2050 unless global birth rates tend downwards as they are presently doing. Only in China and Inidia, there are still more than 350 million persons with no access to electric light, and Subsaharan Africa is faced with critical levels of both rural and urban poverty.

The food and agriculture sector offers key solutions for development, and is central for hunger and poverty eradication. Linked with sustainable urban development, energy and transport many creative and self-reinforcing programmes and projects can be developed - if global consensus can be reached. The coming Rio conference, we can hope, will achieve that, but present outlooks incite caution.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2012 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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