Rio+20: talking easier than doing

2012-06-20 00:00

TODAY marks the beginning of Rio+20 in Brazil, expected to host around 50 000 participants from 190 countries, including politicians, negotiators, experts, NGOs plus assorted activists. They will be out to put the world on track to a green future. Hope springs eternal.

Rio+20 is the tag that has become attached to what is officially known as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. In some respects, it’s a halfway house between the UN Climate Change Conferences (COPs), in this case COP17 held in Durban last December and the one billed for Qatar at the end of this year.

According to the UN, the conference will focus on two themes: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development. Out of this, seven areas have been pinpointed for priority attention; these include decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.

Rio+20 marks the 20th anniversary of the June 1992 conference also held in Rio de Janeiro in which world leaders, including then United States president George Bush, agreed the time had come to combat climate change and produced a global treaty on climate change and an agreement to protect biodiversity.

Twenty years on there has been little progress on either front, yet, once again, a conference comes along on which every­one pins their hopes. “Worn down by hope. That’s the predicament of those who have sought to defend the Earth’s living systems,” writes George Monbiot in the Guardian. “Every time governments meet to discuss the environmental crisis, we are told that this is the ‘make or break summit’, on which the future of the world depends. The talks might have failed before, but this time the light of reason will descend upon the world.”

Already pre-conference negotiations have been taking place in order to take some of the pressure off the mere three days of Rio+20 which ends on June 22. And, as with COP17, all eyes will be on the U.S. and the European Union. As reported by AFP, the EU is already sounding alarm bells — as it did at COP17 — saying it will fight to the last for credible commitments in Rio, but it will be “very, very difficult”, according to the bloc’s environment commissioner Janez Potocnik. “After tough pre-negotiations in New York, unfortunately not enough progress has been made, so we have some intense days ahead of us in Rio.”

But whatever the intentions — and whatever the hopes — the shadow of the world economy and the euro zone crisis will inevitably cast a dark shadow over Rio+20, especially coming as it does immediately after the G20 summit. Notable attendees at that conference held in Mexico — U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — will not be flying down to Rio. “Another tenet of the 1992 summit — that economic and environmental issues should not be treated in isolation — goes up in smoke,” comments Monbiot.

While President Jacob Zuma is expected to look in at Rio+20, the South African delegation is being led by Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa, who also led the delegation at COP17. Molewa will be punting the National Strategy on Sustainable Development (NSSD), which sets out the country’s sustainable development priorities and actions over the next five years.

According to Molewa, this strategy is based on the premise that social and economic sustainability is embedded within and reliant upon a healthy ecosystem and sustainable environmental goods and services. Nothing to argue with there, but what about implementation? Molewa will point to the New Growth Path and the Green Economy Strategy launched last year.

In common with most other countries at Rio+20, South Africa, while trumpeting its green credentials and beating its own drum on internal green policies, will shy away from signing any treaty or commitment likely to affect economic growth. So COP17, so Rio+20.

• feature1@witness.co.za

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