A Green-washed Performance

Post-Rio reflections, submitted to Northern News Services, Canada

By Nimisha Bastedo

I was swallowed whole by the institution that spreads hope throughout the world with its blue helmets and international declarations –The United Nations. It spit me back on the streets of Rio de Janeiro feeling disillusioned, blinking in the sunlight of the real world, after dwelling in the windowless meeting rooms for almost two weeks, watching international representatives negotiate our future. It was the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, otherwise known as Rio+20, or Rio minus 20 by those of us on the inside who were witnessing the incredible lack of global ambition first hand.

The conference marked the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit in Rio, where countries agreed on a progressive platform for sustainable development. Despite all the promise and fanfare tied up in that first conference, the world’s social, economic and environmental crises are worse than ever. Rio+20 was a historic opportunity to get us back on track, for countries to take responsibility and make real commitments to tackle issues like climate change and poverty. But any flicker of hope that I brought with me to Rio became increasingly dim with each day that I spent in that overly air-conditioned conference center decorated with advertisements for ‘sustainable Coca-Cola’.

As I witnessed the discussions circle round and round, the title of the outcome document became increasingly ironic. They called it “The Future We Want”. But far from inspiring any forward momentum, the document actually sends political commitment spiraling backwards. Basic things that had been previously agreed upon, like human rights to food and water, were up for debate until the eleventh hour. Developed nations like Canada and the US refused to acknowledge the global South’s most minimal requests for financial support, and tried to shirk the North’s responsibility to curb our unsustainable production and consumption habits. This glaring backwardness prompted my youth group to organize a demonstration, where we all walked backwards throughout the conference halls. I think the message was clear, even to the security guards, who gave us a bit of a scolding on the premise of “safety concerns”.

Rio+20 was an epic failure on the part of our world leaders to put the wellbeing of people and the planet before national and corporate profit. Not only did it send us backwards, it also laid down a new welcome mat for transnational corporations to strengthen their reign. Under the camouflage of a “Green Economy”, our leaders signed our future away to ‘eco-friendly’ oil companies and ‘green’ pesticide monoliths. They splashed green paint on the same old logic of faith in the free market and unlimited growth. The rules of the game were not up for debate and neither were the greedy power structures that control them. It was clear the only concrete thing that was going to come out of the conference was a flood of high-level Green-washing.

The conference culminated in a three-day grand finale performance when heads of state and deputy ministers entered the stage to give their stamp of approval. Each country had their moment in spotlight. One after the other, the biggest, richest polluters used their five minutes to toot their own green horn. On behalf of Canada, our environment minister Peter Kent boasted of “consistent progress toward a stronger, greener economy” saying that this is “an objective that we have integrated into a broad range of government actions and strategies” that include “augmenting oil sands monitoring, and significantly increasing the protected areas in Canada.”

I admired Kent’s ability to keep a straight face and announce these words to the world, literally days after the Harper government released the 2012 budget bill (Bill C-38), that among other atrocities, slashed our Environmental Assessment Act and removed legal protection of fish habitat by gutting our Fisheries Act.

Kent also proudly mentioned “Canada’s Green Mining Initiative”. No need to worry about the fact that over a million barrels of the world’s dirtiest oil is extracted everyday from our tar sands. Natural Resources Canada is developing techniques like growing canola on old tailing sites, to ensure that our mining is not only profitable, but sustainable!

I was experiencing the world’s most expensive junior-high school talent show. Millions of dollars had been poured into setting the stage, but when the world was calling for jugglers and acrobats, all we got was feeble lip-sync.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called this moment “an important victory for multilateralism after months of difficult negotiations”. Perhaps it seems a miracle that 192 countries where able to reach a consensus, but with such a watered-down text filled with nothing but green-washed business as usual policies, I find it more of a miracle our high-level representatives were able to pat themselves on the back and call it a success. If the UN were filled with Pinocchios there would have been a lot of long noses in the crowd.


Sustainable Development And The Political Treadmill Of No Will

By Julian Velez

Rio+20 was supposed to renew political commitment to Sustainable Development (SD) and poverty eradication by integrating the social, economic and environmental “pillars,” or dimensions. It was a conference that was supposed to build on previous agreements to bring the Sustainable Development agenda to the next step. But the spotlight of the conference was taken by the Green Economy initiative, which hijacked the conversation, and took all the energy away from Sustainable Development. The European Union (EU) along with Korea strongly pushed for the Green Economy. The EU wanted to reinforce the environmental pillar through economic policies that would reactivate their economy with the opening of a new green market strategy in the developing world, based mostly on private investment of green products and technologies in the developing world. To protect  nature, it was argued that the solution was to commodify  nature, in order to value its ecosystem services and create a framework for its  privatization. This strategy, framed as inclusive for all nations, actually undermines the economic reality of the developing nations. It would force the developing world to depend on the corporations of the developed world given that that they do not have the infrastructure to support the transition towards a “Green Economy.” Some barely have the infrastructure to support the socio- economical well being of their nations within the old/dirty economic development roadmap.

The developing world does not have the technology, capacity or finance; therefore it would depend on the developed corporations to sell these services, products and technologies in the developing world. This concept of  “A Green Economy” as the road for all nations did not include a concrete plan to support the developing world in the transition towards a GE. It also avoids targeting the issue of overproduction and overconsumption, which addresses quantity not only quality, a fundamental point in economies and lifestyles of excess that that exist mainly in the developed world. The main problem with this plan is that it undermines Equity. The underlying discussion spun around weather the principle of Equity was going to be respected or not.

The EU wanted three main things to reboot their economy: The Green Economy as a one size fits all concept that would become the central path to follow towards the achievement of SD; the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a universal set of goals, that were focused on the Environmental dimension soley to support both in principle and with timeframes the GE road map. This would not properly include the social and economical dimensions binding all nations to equally fulfill these goals with out questioning the reality of these other dimensions in the developing world. And third, the upgrading of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to a Specialized Agency that could formulate GE policies and enforce them as the authority in the global environment agenda.

This GE trinity would have weakened the SD agenda that is based on the integration of the three pillars through the framework of the Rio Principles. This outcome would have bound the developing world to a new form of dependence, to an accepted “green” market structure that would further the inequitable and unjust neocolonial structures that exist within the neoliberal economic system. It would have created trade barriers and conditionality’s for the developing world for its lack of “green” products and technologies. Basically it would have completely undermined the principle of Equity.

There were several factors and political realities that shaped the outcome document “Our Common Vision:” The unity of G77; the fact that the EU is dealing with a financial crisis and probably had some restrictions on putting money forward to leverage their positions; and the positions of Canada, USA, Japan, New Zeland and Australia that did not appear interested in any real outcome or package from this conference other than lessening the developed world’s commitments and responsibilities to Means Of Implementation (MOI), protect Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), not recognize basic human rights and undermine the Rio principles, in particular Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), these where factors that formed the which is short sighted outcome document. It is the vision of a dog that chases its tail and never gets anywhere. We are biting our own tails with this outcome, the need for ambition is greater that ever.

The GE trinity was to a certain degree tamed in Rio+20. The Green Economy, is framed as “Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” it is framed as an available tool for achieving sustainable development and that it could provide options for policy making but should not be a rigid set of rules. Now it’s referenced as Green Economy policies instead of “A” or “The” GE, taking away the one size fits all perspective from it

Apart from the EU, initially the support for the idea of an upgraded UNEP came mainly from Kenya, the host nation for UNEP, who must have assumed it would bring prestige, jobs and greater finance opportunities. However G77 kept a strong stance against these proposals, understanding the awfully detrimental implications for the developing world. They also took a firm stance on strengthening the Rio Principles to bring Equity to the heart of the talks and reaffirm and further the previous unfinished commitments to Means Of Implementation. The G77 withstood attempts to divide their group, and was able to stand united till the end, which is a rare and exceptional task. The G77 was able to bring Kenya and the Africa Group to the rejection of the trinity of proposals on the basis of their broader repercussions for the developing world.

UNEP got strengthened as an authoritative advocate for the global environment, with secure, stable and adequate funding from the UN budget and as the body that will formulate UN system-wide strategies on the environment. It did not receive specialized agency status with enforcement power.

The SDGs will fully respect all Rio Principles, taking into account different national circumstances, capacities and priorities, build upon commitments already made and will incorporate in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development and their inter-linkages. This will build on the Millennium Development Goals rather than dwarf them and will integrate Sustainable Development as a whole.

Behind all of this, the underlying quarrel was around weather this high level summit with heads of state would recognize and respect Equity and CBDR and whether these principles would guide the SD agenda. All the decisions made at Rio+20 will be used as an outcome from which other UN regimes will draw from to inform their decisions.

The real fight over Equity and CBDR continues in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) where countries are dealing with a legally binding treaty and  with a universal and all encompassing issue that is threatening the integrity of life in this planet. It is in the UNFCCC where governments have to decide weather they will comply through Equity and CBDR.

In the fight for Equity, the outcome reflects some positive steps, which is crucial because if this principle had been buried in Rio it would have been really hard to dig up in other UN conventions.

In this regard there was a win at Rio+20 in the struggle against climate change –governments agreed to protect the climate system on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. There was a recognition of the need for funding to support nationally appropriate mitigation actions, adaptation measures, technology development and transfer and capacity-building in developing countries.  And governments where urged to fully implement their commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, which addresses the historical responsibilities of countries. While no ambitious steps where taken to do anything additional to deal with one of the worlds biggest challenges.

Nevertheless the EU will keep forcing the Green Economy in the Sustainable Energy for All initiative and in Climate Change through private investment with very specific terms and conditions and market strategies.

Now here we stand with an outcome that through contentious discussions only reaffirmed previous agreements; an outcome that does not recognize the rights of nature, that barely acknowledges the right to water and that recognizes the right to access to food not the full recognition of “the right to food”. It was a long 20 year walk that left us in the same place. Above all the text reflects inaction, lack of political will and commitment to Sustainable Development, the eradication of poverty and the well being of our planet. MOI has no concrete or ambitious commitments. The 10-Year Framework of Programmes on sustainable consumption and production has been adopted only on voluntary terms.

We clearly need to raise the capacity and status of the SD regime, it is evident that we cant pretend to create solutions to all the social, economic and environmental problems  of the world with a text from the Commission on Sustainable Development, which meets once every year and has no priority or power in the UN structure. It is obvious that it needs to be upgraded to the Council on Sustainable Development , instead of the alternate proposal of the upgrading of UNEP, as there is a immense lack of vision and interest in regards to SD. There is a need for a strong UN structure that can properly integrate the three pillars of Sustainable Development and that has weight in domestic policies.

As I said we are biting our own tail with this outcome, our government representatives are unwilling to look beyond their present political interests. And the developed world is not willing to step up and show some responsible leadership for the inequitable and unjust reality that they have shaped around lifestyles of excess and exploitation of the people and nature of the world for 500 hundred years.

Also the governments of the developing world work to protect their middle to high class, and hide behind the red line or bottom line needs of “poor countries” in order to not compromise the lifestyle of their elites and continue the miss care of their poor.

The poor cannot live with this political agreement, their life rather than lifestyle is at stake; their red line, their bottom line for a dignified life is being buried.

Please! Let us not sit and watch comfortably in our safe little couches as the consumption machine devours our natural environment through its gluttony mentality of growth that propagates injustice and oppression in our planet. We need to leave the jaws of the machine, we need to cleanse our selves of its slime and mock. This moment has shown a clear signal a clear message that it is the time for us to take action, all of you and all of me, governments wont. It is the time to embrace our responsibility as creatures of this earth and take action, to take care of the other sentient beings of this planet and challenge the structures that undermine the right to a dignified life.


Rio+20: ¿El Futuro Que Realmente Queremos?

by Julian Velez

Frente a la profunda crisis económica, social y ambiental de nuestro planeta nuestros gobiernos están fracasando en proponer soluciones reales y en priorizar el bienestar social y ambiental en sus agendas políticas. Esto se vive en las negociaciones del texto “The Future We Want” (El Futuro Que Queremos), plataforma de discusión de la Conferencia de Desarrollo Sostenible de las Naciones Unidas (ONU), Rio+20.

Los gobiernos del mundo están negociando soluciones a la crisis multifacética de hoy en día con el marco del desarrollo sostenible como la ruta a seguir; sin embargo, las negociaciones no están brindando respuestas reales a los problemas estructurales políticos, económicos y sociales de nuestro sistema neoliberal. Ya que este mantiene el poder corporativo, que es en gran parte responsable por la disparidad de la riqueza, la explotación del medio ambiente y múltiples injusticias laborales. Los gobiernos no escuchan las necesidades de la sociedad civil, y por eso la gente en Tahrir, Montreal, Chile, México y el movimiento global de “Occupy” está alzando su voz para exigir los cambios  que la sociedad quiere ver.

Por las mismas razones, nosotros aquí en Rio+20 estamos alzando nuestra voz para cuestionar y retar las discusiones en torno a los temas incluidos en el  texto de negociación que pretende articular soluciones a nuestro futuro. Pero éste falla en el intento. No describe el futuro que queremos y necesitamos. Por esto, nosotros, Earth in Brackets, proponemos “The Future We Really Want" (El Futuro Que Realmente Queremos), un documento que explora los problemas de raíz y genera propuestas a la esencia de los mismos.

Hasta el momento el desarrollo sostenible, tema principal de esta junta, no parece una prioridad para los gobiernos en Rio+20. El tema que esta generando mayor discusión es la iniciativa de la Economía Verde, propuesta que pretende impulsar el desarrollo sostenible y la erradicación de la pobreza, alejando la economía del dominio de los derivados del petróleo. Parte del problema es que no hay acuerdo respecto a la definición de la Economía Verde, pero hay muchas interpretaciones. El PNUMA (Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente), formuló dicha propuesta que en resumen dice que la Economía Verde está elaborada como una propuesta que mejora el bienestar humano por medio del crecimiento económico, mientras que asegura la protección de la naturaleza. Pero nosotros y otros grupos de la sociedad civil y las ONGs no piensan lo mismo.

La Economía Verde es un iniciativa enmascarada, no es una vía real para alcanzar un desarrollo sostenible. En realidad es una respuesta a la crisis financiera que pretende crear un nuevo método para salvar el sistema neoliberal que dominan los países desarrollados. Es un intento por rescatar a los mercados a toda costa, propone la mercantilización de la naturaleza incluyendo los servicios que brindan los ecosistemas. Es un camino que apunta hacia la legitimación y la mercantilización de la destrucción de la naturaleza. Se está proponiendo un nuevo patio de recreo para el poder privado, en donde la existencia de los recursos comunes queda en juego, ya que propone una economía basada en el crecimiento sostenido y en los mismos patrones de producción y consumo excesivos de nuestro sistema. La estrategia consiste en una perspectiva de “lavado verde” (presentar a la economía y sus productos como ecológicamente amigables), para que sea aceptado continuar creciendo a costa de la dependencia de los países subdesarrollados, de las injusticias laborales y la explotación de la naturaleza.

La sociedad civil y la juventud en Rio+20 está consciente que el proceso excluye su voz y los gobiernos no hablan por sus pueblos. Los intereses de la sociedad civil no están en la mesa, la Economía Verde no refleja los intereses ni las necesidades de la gente. Nosotros, la juventud, estamos conscientes que existen otras maneras para salvaguardar la naturaleza, no se necesitan valorizaciones monetarias, pues la naturaleza tiene derechos inherentes. Queremos ir mas allá del PIB con indicadores que reflejen el bienestar social, ambiental y económico. Necesitamos una nueva visión de lo que es desarrollo que esté basada en justicia y los derechos, no en el consumo y la producción. Bajo el principio de equidad, la economía debe conducir a una redistribución del poder y la riqueza entre los países. La transición debe estar basada en que los países tienen responsabilidades comunes pero diferenciadas con respecto a su realidad socio-económica y a su responsabilidad histórica de explotación de los recursos naturales.

En el futuro que realmente queremos, necesitamos un verdadero cambio, no queremos continuar por la misma vieja vereda con adornos nuevos. Se necesita un cambio de estructuras y de mentalidad que esté basado en la armonía con la naturaleza, la equidad entre las naciones, la igualdad en las sociedades, la salud social y ambiental. Los derechos humanos y del medio ambiente deben anular  la mentalidad lucrativa.

A Leopard Doesn’t Change Its Spots


Thoughts on the "Green Economy" and Rio+20

by Adrian Fernandez Jauregui

Published on Stakeholder Forum's Outreach magazine

It’s been almost 2 years of mounting excitement around the Rio+20 conference. But what is there to be excited about? How has the world changed in the past 20 years since Rio? Has the lot of the world’s poor been improved? Apparently not. Quite the opposite, in fact. Have global power structures changed? In some ways yes, but in most ways no. There are still the same winners and losers in the great game of international relations. Especially when it comes to the idea of the “Green Economy," where it seems that the Global South will once again get the short end of the stick.

Decades after the lengthy and painful structural adjustment periods of the 70s and 90s, which left deep scars on the industries, agricultural sectors, and societies of the developing world, it is insulting to now see an eerily similar initiative appear in the “Green Economy road-map.” This new initiative is similar in too many ways to the older — unsuccessful and damaging — restructuring initiatives. This new Green Economy initiative would see new trade barriers imposed on the developing world (such as a carbon tariff, or border adjustment tax). It would involve “experts” imposing a “one size fits all” development model, or “road-map.” . It risks establishing new aid conditionalities that require progress solely toward environmental goals. It’s all about changing the rules of the game in order to favor specific (developed) economies, and allocate the burden of transition to developing countries. It restarts the struggle to “catch up” with the developed world, this time (and for now) the new direction is the green economy instead of liberalization of the economy.

The original Rio principles and commitments are being ignored completely as governments work towards a new (questionably titled) document, “The Future We Want.” The excuses are many, but the bottom line is that developed countries want to move away from the agreements and principles established in 1992. Although the Rio principles are supposed to be shaping the document, countries like the US, Canada and Japan have been systematically blocking any mention of the Rio principles, especially the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and the Polluter Pays principles, which are key strategic safeguards.

It is frustrating to know that the same story is being replayed over and over again. But the worst part is seeing some developing countries follow the same patterns of development based on natural resource predation and unsustainable consumption patterns that not long ago were heavily criticized by overdeveloped countries. It is not easy to restrain humanity’s aspirations of development, and this is the case in Germany, Bolivia, Zimbabwe or elsewhere. But it is certainly tougher to reject the idea of development when poverty, hunger, and inequality are the standard fare of everyday life for the large majority of people. So, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see more and more developing countries trading green areas of forests for green cash. Especially after the first Earth Summit, when it was made clear that the only way for the South to develop in a sustainable way was by providing them with adequate assistance such as technology transfer, Official Development Assistance and capacity building, breaking any dependency. These necessities were never even close to being met.

Development is needed in most regions of the world to address poverty and under-consumption.  But, just as anything else in the natural world, things grow and develop until a certain point, and no more. Unfortunately, there are a number of countries that are living far beyond their means. Over-consumption — a symptom of over-development — remains a contentious topic. In fact, the US rejects the interdependence between sustainable consumption and production patterns and sustainable development.  Bolivia and Ecuador disagree fundamentally with this position; for these two countries the concept of “good living” should instead be the guide to achieve sustainable consumption levels. The concept of “good living” means understanding quality of life as much more than purchasing power and consumption levels: It also takes into account humanity's relationship with nature.

Until underlying issues such as inequality, assumption of infinite growth, over-consumption, and lack of agency in the South are seriously addressed, and principles like common but differentiated responsibilities are seriously respected, any outcome from Rio will not be the future we really want.