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Earth talks ‘in need of vision and direction 2012-04-23

/ April 23, 2012 11:29 pm   By Pilita Clark, Environment Correspondent


There is no reason to suppose that yet another global conference will solve the world’s environmental woes. But for three days in June, the UN is to hold a meeting in Rio de Janeiro where more than 100 leaders are expected to go at least some way towards doing that.


So far, the signs are not encouraging for Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development being held 20 years after the 1992 UN Rio earth summit that helped push the environmental movement into the mainstream.


The 1992 conference drew 108 heads of state from more than 170 countries, according to the UN, plus 2,400 representatives from non-government organisations. About 17,000 people attended a parallel NGO forum.


After a good deal of preparation, the summit also produced several important agreements, most notably the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, forerunner of the 1997 Kyoto protocol, the world’s only legally binding treaty obliging wealthy countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.


It also produced “Agenda 21”, a blueprint for action that led to hundreds of bodies embedding sustainable development principles into their operations. And it opened for signature the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which had just been drawn up.


The latest Rio earth summit is shaping up to be a more modest affair. It is unclear how many heads of state from large economies will turn up, in part because big draws such as President Barack Obama of the US are fighting elections and are not expected to make it.


Optimists point out it is still too early to expect some leaders to commit themselves to an appearance but pressure is growing on those yet to make firm commitments.


Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, the consumer goods group, says: “World leaders must attend the summit. The world expects nothing less. Our leaders’ presence and commitment is crucial if Rio is to deliver real change.


“The world’s population has passed the 7bn mark, and will reach 9bn by 2050. Within two decades, human demand for water will exceed foreseen supply by about 40 per cent, while global food production will need to increase by 70 per cent to feed a growing population.”


Mr Polman, whose company is a prominent advocate of corporate sustainability, plans to go to Rio. But it is not certain how many other top chief executives will. “A lot of CEOs are sitting on the fence,” says Malcolm Preston, global head of sustainability services at PwC, the consultancy.


The guest list is one thing. But figuring out precisely what will be on the agenda is another. At the start of this year, the first draft of the final outcome document ran to just 19 pages. Subsequent meetings have seen it swell to more than 200 pages, according to people familiar with the latest version.


Prominent NGOs have expressed concern about the way the summit is proceeding, and the lack of visionary leadership. Tim Gore of Oxfam International told reporters at the end of March: “We haven’t had a single leader who has stood up and provided the vision and direction that these talks desperately need,” adding there was still time for this to change.


What is in the draft outcome document is not without interest, including suggestions on how to create so-called “green economies”. These include phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and other harmful and market distorting measures. Getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies is an idea that has been agreed on in other high-level. Progress has been slow, however.


The document also suggested: new measures to protect oceans; turning the UN Environment Programme into a fully-fledged UN specialist agency, and appointing a “high commissioner for future generations”.


For some, this constitutes machinery rather than action. But the meeting itself could still be very effective, says Matthew Spencer, director of the UK Green Alliance think-tank.


“Our hopes of it being a meaty agenda delivering new institutional arrangements have faded, but as a place to restart the conversation about how politics is going to address the resource crunch in an increasingly unstable climate, it could be a really powerful forum,” he says.


Assuming the 200-plus page agenda gets whittled down into a more manageable and effective document, new efforts are being made to make sure whatever is agreed is implemented.


“The key to Rio+20 being a success is to recognise the parts that were missing 20 years ago,” says Adam Matthews, secretary-general of Globe International, the body that works to advance environmental laws.


“There was a failure to ensure that commitments turned into national legislation,” he says. No structure was created “that could legitimately hold governments’ feet to the fire if they were failing to deliver”.


Globe is working with the Brazilian government and the UN to create a “scrutiny mechanism” to make sure that, after Rio+20, there is the necessary follow-through in legislation. First, however, there is the small issue of precisely what the conference will end up producing for legislators to consider.


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