Friday 29 June 2012

Rio+20: A failure with redeeming features?

Buried on page 20, under point 104, the Rio+20 Final Outcome Document sets out “..the objective of the Conference, namely to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, as well as to address the themes of a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development..”

By any objective measure the conference surely failed to meet this objective. The extent to which political commitment for sustainable development was missing is revealed by the 55 page documents’ language. It is big on “we reaffirm the importance of” and small on “we will do”.

Damned as an “epic failure” by Greenpeace and, more diplomatically, “disappointing” by the Deputy Prime Minister of the UK the summit attracted over 40,000 participants drawn from civil society, governments, the United Nations, business and campaigning groups among others. What emerged was a general consensus that the international community should do more on eradicating poverty without having a negative impact on food security, water availability or access to energy among others. And despite the much vaunted prospect of a group of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emerging, possibly to take their place as potential successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which expire in 2015, hopes were disappointed there too.

The criticism of the conference has ranged from the way it was organised right through to its outcome, with the United Kingdom Government’s representative, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, even wondering out loud whether it might not have been better simply to walk away with nothing rather than the document that has emerged. This article will not rehearse those critiques, good examples of which you can find here, here and here.

There may in fact be some positive signs that have been obscured amid the loud chorus of disapproval that may have genuinely transformative potential to make real and positive impacts on the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world, particularly those who live in the shadow of armed violence, and in doing so illustrate a new way of working which moves beyond the power blocs of the various G groups (G8, G20, G77) which did so much to limit what Rio+20 was able to achieve.

And there was one announcement on the fringes of the conference that was especially relevant, the announcement that the Sustainable Energy for All initiative has attracted $50 billion of commitments from business, who were well represented at this conference, unlike its predecessor in 1992. This initiative, established in September 2011, aims to make real a vision expressed at Rio: “We are all determined to act to make sustainable energy for all a reality..” with actual commitments and costed pledges of support.

The pledges will be put to use in pursuit of the initiative’s goals, which are threefold:
  • Ensure universal access to modern energy services
  • Double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency
  • Double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix
And it seems the lead actors in this are businesses acting in concert with the UN, with national governments standing to one side. HSBC, a contributor to the fund, said caustically:
"While government negotiators haggle over a dwindling pool of traditional aid, the private sector is scaling up trillions of investment dollars a year for clean and accessible energy. This Initiative is an example of a new way of working for the UN, using its convening power to identify critical bottlenecks to renewables, efficiency and universal access, and then designing focused packages of policy incentives, public finance and private capital."
Over 50 Governments will also be drawing up energy strategies in pursuit of the three goals under the initiative.

Speaking at Rio Ban Ki Moon said:
"These huge numbers give a sense of the scale and growth of investment going into sustainable development. They are part of a growing global movement for change. Our job now is to create a critical mass, an irresistible momentum."
Of the three goals the first is of most direct relevance to the 1.5 billion people who live in the poorest and most conflict prone countries and territories in the world. Though this was not referred to at Rio+20 there is a very real and direct link between fuel price volatility and shortages of other goods on the drivers of conflict in those areas.

A significant proportion of peace agreements fail within 5 years of being signed, so the risk of a return to conflict in states emerging from war is real, and made more likely by the inability to respond to external shocks. The impact of current and projected fuel and food price crises will increase that risk.

Measures to widen access to energy services, reducing vulnerability and building the resilience of conflict prone states to this source of external shock with home grown sources of equitably distributed and sustainable energy is an important step forward and one that has sadly been overshadowed by the chorus of disappointment surrounding the conference.

So tackling the lack of energy access for the poorest, and reducing the likelihood and impact of energy price shocks without unnecessarily harming the environment marks a real advance – and that it did so on the sidelines of a traditional inter-governmental conference suggests that these government-government forums on their own are inadequate for tackling the interlinking and complex factors that they set out to.

Further evidence of this is not in short supply. Amid the vague language described by EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard as “too much ‘reaffirm this’, ‘reaffirm that’, instead of ‘we commit’ or ‘we decide’”, there are two sections that deal with the issues of mining and climate change, both crucial both to the environment but also to the prospects for peace or war, and therefore to development sustainable or otherwise. In both cases they miss either the fundamental point of the issue as they relate to those most closely affected by them or, having grasped the point, they fail to commit to any meaningful response.

Mining of natural resources is both a major source of income to countries experiencing conflict, yet also poses risks if not managed in a way that avoids generating or exacerbating local conflicts. Yet the two paragraphs of the relevant section does not refer to conflict, merely the:
“..importance of strong and effective legal and regulatory frameworks, policies and practices for the mining sector that deliver economic and social benefits and include effective safeguards that reduce social and environmental impacts..”
While the very real and present impact of climate change that already has and is in the process of taking place, leading to severe conflict risks as large scale population movements take place in search of farmland for example, is recognised as the threat it is:
We stress the importance of stronger interlinkages among disaster risk reduction, recovery and long-term development planning, and call for more co-ordinated and comprehensive strategies that integrate disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation considerations into public and private investment, decision making and the planning of humanitarian and development actions, in order to reduce risk, increase resilience and provide a smoother transition between relief, recovery and development.
And that:
“..we emphasize that adaptation to climate change represents an immediate and urgent global priority.”
But most of the rest of the section deals with climate change to come, not that which has already taken place, and urges action on the Green Climate Fund.

There is much more in this document but precious little on the subject of conflict or fragility. The only direct mention of it is in a nine word sentence on page six, which I have highlighted in case you miss it:
We recognise that each country faces specific challenges to achieve sustainable development and we underscore the special challenges facing the most vulnerable countries and in particular African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States, as well as the specific challenges facing the middle income countries. Countries in situations of conflict also need special attention.
So the natural inclination is for those of us in the peacebuilding sector to join the chorus of disapproval from civil society, expressed by Oxfam Chief Executive Barbara Stocking who condemned the conference as having “done nothing” for the poorest.

That it did little and fell below already-lowered expectations is not in doubt, but there may be some chinks of light to be found in the willingness of business, acting out of corporate responsibility and enlightened self interest, teaming up with UN agencies and showing national governments preoccupied with the immediacy of the economic crisis and the ongoing game of power politics, that thinking ahead and investing long term stability will ultimately pay real dividends.

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