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Nature & Politics: Failure in Rio

By • on June 30, 2012 at 10:56 pm

The predictable word is in from Rio: failure. The conference twenty years on from the huge Earth Summit, Rio 92, has been unable to produce even the pretense of an energetic verbal commitment of the world’s community to “sustainable principles.”

The reason? These conferences have always been pretty fraudulent affairs, lofted on excited green rhetoric and larded with ominous advisories that “this time we cannot afford to fail” and that “the tipping point” is finally here. But failure has been a loyal companion, and many a tipping point has tipped without amiss. There is no such thing as a world “community.” There are rich nations and poor nations, all with differing national interests and the former will never accede willingly to the agendas of the latter, however intricate the language of the final windy “declaration.” Since Gro Bruntland lofted it to glory in 1987, the word “sustainable” has long been drained of all meaning.

The general absurdity of these earth summits – Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, Durban, and now Rio again, is summed up in what the green forces hoped could be a concluding declaration this time in Rio to which enough nations could fix their name and declare Victory for the planet. Originally it was to be the commitment to a “Green World” but not enough nations cared for that so the fall-back face-saver was a plan for a UN treaty to protect the international high seas.

To the greens’ utter astonishment, early on Tuesday, it turned out that the US and Venezuela were vetoing this plan. Whatever Hugo Chavez’s motives, the reason for the US veto was obvious and should have been so from the moment the plan was mooted. The International Treaty on the Law of Sea was ratified in 1982 and the US has always refused to sign it. Shouts of betrayal mounted. “The future we want has gotten a little further away today. Rio+20 has turned into an epic failure. It has failed on equity, failed on ecology and failed on economy,” said Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace. “This is not a foundation on which to grow economies or pull people out of poverty, it’s the last will and testament of a destructive twentieth century development.” The businessman Maurice Strong, a big player at these events, said the world had gone backward since 1992.

The Brazilians threw in the towel, insisting on a spineless final declaration. “Sustainability” was suddenly thrust forward as a face-saver. Like some Trollopian parson, somehow surviving the bureaucratic infighting, was the Commission on Sustainable Development which had been leading a quiet and unassuming life in some UN back office. Now the hitherto toothless commission will be elevated into a high-level body charged with monitoring and enforcing “sustainable development goals” (SDGs) and will report to the UN General Assembly. Among its possible areas of concern: food security and sustainable agriculture; sustainable energy for all; water access and efficiency; sustainable cities; green jobs, decent work, and something called social inclusion.

By the time the actual world leaders settled into their suites — US President Barack Obama, Britain’s David Cameron and German leader Angela Merkel were all no-shows – there was absolutely nothing to do: no rousing declarations, just muted jawboning about how the mere fact that these sessions were taking place was important for the planet.

So much for the fantasy land of the Green conferences, touchingly evoked by last Sunday, by the Guardian’s newspaper’s “sustainable business editor” who wrote from Rio:? “While the politicians are finding it difficult to find common ground, we are elsewhere witnessing the movement… to multi-dimensional collaborations. This is probably one of the most exciting developments we are likely to see coming out of Rio+20 and will offer the first tantalizing evidence of the ability to start taking projects to scale.”

A friend of mine, based in the Middle East, came to know Yemen’s minister of the environment. A large portion of the Yemeni’s duties, decently remunerated by the UN, was attending not just the big green conferences, but also the preparatory ones, four times a year. These are where the so-called sherpas – itinerant bureaucrats whose life is give over to these grim tasks – draft the Zero document, which then becomes the object of months, even years of wrangling. Our Yemeni was of course only too happy to get out of Sana’a. Now multiply him and his diminutive delegation by the 170 odd nations whose platoons of Green delegates consume millions a year of UN money in travel fees, accommodation – often lavish – and of course remuneration. We can safely assume that many of these conferees form stimulating personal relationships, which only increases their loyalty to the process as it loiters through the decades.
These and other conferences continue, year by year, a kind of fiscal stimulus for NGOs and the hospitality industry. Ban Ki-moon himself admits nothing useful will be agreed in Rio but says calling such conferences “junkets” is irresponsible. He says: “If you can find any alternative, please let me know.”

The role of the left has been influential in the formation of this itinerant, gabby pantechnikon with its dramas and deadlines and final null termination. They’ve grown to love huge international assemblies, preferably located in pleasant surroundings, in which to palaver about issues of the economy, democracy and so forth. No less that 50,000 attended Rio+20, earnestly mooting ten thousand green schemes in the conference seminars.

For their part the western governments are prepared to take a moldy cabbage or two tossed at them by disappointed greens. They’ve done nothing substantive in 20 years. Why should they start now?

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