Rio has been getting back to normal now that all the visitors attending the UN Summit on Sustainable Development have wandered home following the rather limp conclusion on 22nd June. As expected the final declaration agreed to by the delegates of 190 countries is nothing more than “283 paragraphs of fluff”. That is how George Monbiot described it in his blog at The Guardian. Canada’s Minister of Environment, Peter Kent, was quite happy with the fluff. He praised the document saying, “”It does not have unrealistic, inappropriate binding commitments. It does point us, in my view, in a forward direction, but it doesn’t have instant confections [that would duplicate existing processes, or commit countries inadvertently to harmful policies.]” I find most comment on the web echoes Monbiot rather than Kent.
Articles by Monbiot in The Guardian, by the Executive Director of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Mark Halle, and by reported, Jo Confino (also in the Guardian) are all worth reading. They each point to the abysmal failure by world leaders to make any effort to negotiate seriously a plan for sustainability.
Confino quoting Professor Tim Jackson of Surrey University, and author of Prosperity without Growth, who states that the leaders at the conference have betrayed the vision of a green economy, writes:
Rather than questioning the existing economic model, which is leading us to environmental and social disaster, Jackson believes the final text showed that politicians have let fear rather than courage gain the upper hand, which will result in us being driven even further into the arms of a bankrupt belief system.
The University of Surrey professor, who was in Rio to present the initial findings of his modelling work aimed at showing an innovative green investment led economic system is possible, says: “The most staggering linguistic turnabout for me is the one that equates green economy with ‘sustained economic growth’. There are 15 mentions of this term, occasionally with inclusive and once or twice with equitable added as a qualifier. But sustained rather than sustainable. This is hidebound recidivism at its very best. We’re no longer even using the terminology of green growth or sustainable growth. Instead of accepting the responsibility of the richest to develop a new economic model, this language has set back by a decade any attempt to question the model that led us to the brink of financial disaster, perpetuates huge consumption inequalities and is driving us towards ecological collapse. Disappointment doesn’t quite cover it. It’s a staggering failure of responsibility.”
Halle begins his brief commentary with, “June 23 and the planet continues its slow decline, uninterrupted by the sustainable development summit that has just finished in Rio” He laments the apparent inability of leaders to show courage, make real compromises and work to achieve real long-term solutions. His comments on how the final text was cobbled together at the last minute, and adopted because people preferred to adopt a meaningless statement than admit to failure.
Monbiot, writing in the Guardian on 25th June begins, “It is, perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. The Earth’s living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations – the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia – could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit in Rio last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue “sustained growth”, the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses.” He goes on to discuss the reasons for failure, and suggests, as do most other commentators, that the mechanisms the world has developed for achieving multilateral agreements no longer work. He suggests that the way forward is to work in smaller groups, in lest grand settings, to reach sensible agreements that will delay environmental deterioration in some places, build improved environmental conditions in others, all to provide a reason for continued hope. I get the sense that his solutions are not enough, but I have no alternative solutions of my own.
This failure is only the latest in a long string of relative failures of the international community. The Durban climate conference in November 2011 was similarly lackluster. It achieved a final agreement which requires that the countries come together in 2015 by which time they will somehow have hammered out a treaty they can all sign on to, that will begin to rein in CO2 emissions in 2020. Might as well not have held the Durban meeting.
I have been telling people I think we need to develop an economic model that is appropriate to a finite universe (not an original idea, I know), but I now add to that recipe that we also have to build a way of reaching binding global agreements because the mechanism we have clearly cannot do the heavy lifting.
Lest we forget, let’s go back to Peter Kent and Canada’s role in this Rio farce. A spokesman for WWF, the world’s largest environmental NGO, well represented at the conference, said, “Canada has blocked progress so far in every realm at Rio +20. […] This is a negotiation, and yet it’s not clear anyone from Canada has any mandate to move in any way on any issue. Canada appears disinterested in measures to safeguard the environment.”
Hardly surprising perhaps, given the fact that Canada has abandoned Kyoto and slashed environmental protections at home. The Harper government is hell-bent on maximizing production of tar sands oil, and adopting a ‘damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead’ approach which tramples on environmental concerns, free speech, and anything else deemed to detract from achieving its oil-fixated goals. An article in the Toronto Star refers to Canada “busily pedaling backwards” at the conference, and one in the Montreal Gazette is headed “I find myself ashamed of being Canadian”
Will the international community now settle down and start to build the new mechanisms it needs so badly. Don’t hold your breath.