Prospects for the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development

Published by: Carter Peter on 5th Jun 2012 | View all blogs by Carter Peter

Prospects for the Rio+20 conference? Not good in general, and particularly bad for climate change.

 As a 'major group' in the Rio+20 UN sustainable development conference, the Climate Emergency Institute has been lobbying for global climate change to be at the top of the agenda. But right from the start, the world's greatest threat to any future development has been barely on the agenda at all.

 It has been a hard sell even to the NGOs involved, who have been advised this Earth summit is not about global climate change. The best we have achieved on the greatest emergency ever  is a vague ‘urgent’.Prospects for the Rio+20 conference? Not good in general, and particularly bad for climate change.

 Perhaps the best description of what to expect from the Rio+20 conference is the one published in the Guardian on 28 May 2012 by The Elders:


"Rio+20's opportunity will be squandered without courage and vision."


The Blue Planet Laureates sent in a paper in February 2012 that best described the disastrous global predicament that must be dealt with, but is not. "In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency, society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us."

A 4 June 2012 article in the Malaysia Star, by Martin Kohr of South Center, sums up the results of the discussions amongst states: "As the Rio summit on sustainable development nears, governments have yet to agree on most issues, and rich countries are backtracking on the original principles and commitments made 20 years ago."


There are no real commitments by governments in this draft. All kinds of language is used but it all avoids commitments or requirements on governments.


We have the extraordinary new language of "voluntary commitments" and "promote commitments" (!) and "calling for commitments." There is much that is "called for" in this draft but no commitments made or re-affirmed apart from the general commitment to sustainable development, the green economy, and UN human rights that will continue to be ignored and abused – including by this draft, which is imposing business-as-usual economics and rolling back the commitments made 20 years ago.


There is one single climate change commitment in the draft, which is the catastrophic 2ºC target. And the draft language on this is "with a view to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions" (!)So the message is terribly clear: governments do not intend to reduce emissions.


"Sustained economic growth" means the opposite of sustainable development. It means the continued, business-as-usual, unconstrained, deregulated, neoclassical, free-market, constant-growth-in-maximum-profits-at-all-costs economics – which is, of course, the cause of the ongoing global environmental degradation and pollution and socio-economic deprivation affecting billions of people.


In Rio+20, there is no full-cost accounting and no internalization of externalized socio-environmental costs.


There is no pollution prevention – only pollution "reduction," which is practically meaningless in the face of persistent, cumulative pollutants like atmospheric carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas halocarbons. Because of carbon dioxide's cumulative property, global warming, climate change and ocean acidification caused by atmospheric greenhouse gas pollution are practically forever.


The precautionary principle has been downgraded to the weak and meaningless precautionary "approach."


The Rio+20 background description correctly recalls that "twenty years after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, […] countries adopted Agenda 21 – a blueprint to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection."


"For the first time also, the lifestyle of the current civilization was addressed in Principle 8 of the Rio Declaration. The urgency of a deep change in consumption and production patterns was expressly and broadly acknowledged by State leaders. Agenda 21 further reaffirmed that sustainable development was delimited by the integration of the economic, social and environmental considerations."  

The Rio Declaration was quite an achievement, written in particularly clear, strong, international legal language – but being a declaration, it is not binding on states.


Agenda 21 was described as the "United Nations blueprint for sustainable development." This is a lengthy and comprehensive document, eight years in the making, and also very specific in the plan designed to make the switch from environmentally unsustainable development to a greatly constrained and regulated sustainable conversion of the free-market economy.


Particularly important were the principles agreed to in the Rio Declaration and contained in more detail in Agenda 21. These are the principles of pollution prevention, polluter pays, and precaution. The other principle that would go a long way towards switching to sustainability was full-cost accounting (that is, including the social and environmental costs of damaging developments) and the economic internalization of the so-called economic externalities.


As the United Nations Earth Summit 20th anniversary, Rio+20 is nothing like the big summit held in Rio 20 years ago. It is following a now familiar pattern of annual UN climate conferences and the intergovernmental negotiations leading up to each conference. Like the annual climate change conferences that have been held since the UN Bali conference in December 2007, we are told that nations negotiating for an agreement on sustainable development are deadlocked and that the negotiations have been extended beyond their planned schedule. The pattern is of initial great hope and expectation, leading to media reports of little to expect, and then we are left with nothing but hope.


In January, the Brazilian media gave some insight into what Rio+20 was about. Andre Correa do Lago, who heads the Brazilian delegation negotiating a draft of the outcome document for Rio+20, said that climate change was too sensitive an issue for many countries, while sustainable development was something everybody could get behind. "Climate change has very strong resistance from sectors that are going to be substantially altered, like the oil industry," Correa do Lago said. "The feeling we have, when we are discussing with such different countries, is that sustainable development is the right answer." He said the refusal of many U.S. Republican candidates vying to challenge President Barack Obama in this year's elections to even acknowledge global warming was a problem, highlighting the difficulty of addressing the issue in an international forum.


That makes it pretty clear who is the main influence of the UN Rio+20 conference agenda. The future is being given over to the fossil fuel energy corporations and the United States. A 20-year-long open conspiracy of lies and corruption is being obliged by marginalizing global climate change.


Earlier this month Brazilian environmental policy specialist Adriana Ramos, with Socio-Environmental Institute NGO, made a depressing but no doubt realistic statement that it would be hard for the Brazilian government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in light of the enthusiasm raised by the discovery of major oil reserves in undersea deposits off the Atlantic coast.

She accurately stated that "it is hard to envisage that the conference could succeed, because there are in fact no concrete proposals in the official document to generate commitment."

Another sign of what this conference is about was given by Sha Zukang, the secretary-general of Rio+20, as reported on May 29. "So why is the United Nations convening this conference? It is not about enforcing rules or regulations at the cost of quality of life, but rather to encourage and facilitate better, wiser choices by individuals, local communities, businesses and governments.... Together, by engaging in creative thought, forward-looking initiatives and voluntary commitments, we can build consensus and strive for a world that will make our descendants proud. Let's work together to create the future we want."

If ever there was an oxymoron , it is the term that is also in the Rio+20 draft text and perhaps has been invented especially for Rio+20: "voluntary commitment." Especially when it comes to rapid drastic emissions measures to prevent global climate catastrophe. 



  • Pieter Vandekerckhove
    by Pieter Vandekerckhove 4 years ago
    Special issue in Nature on climate change and RIO +20
  • Carter Peter
    by Carter Peter 4 years ago
    Thanks so much Pieter - I had not seen it.
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