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.


Expectations, Expectations

Why global summits matter: Rio+20

by Ana Puhač

When last December TIME magazine featured the “the protester” as the person of the year, I thought how in the future, that publication could be seen as one of the most symbolic images that marked the start of a new global era. The world is in crisis? Isn’t that what every generation before us, facing a transition into a new global paradigm has said: “the world is in crisis”? Generations are born with crises like people are born with birthmarks – some have it, some don’t, some may symbolize something positive, some cause complications. But none have yet turned fatal, and completely eroded this civilization. We’ve learned from the past that there have been justifiable fears of global existential risks because of the warfare, the threat of nuclear mass destruction and epidemic diseases. But never before have we faced such global systematic disrepair because of the way we’ve decided to develop.

Evidently, the world is starting to crumble under the weight of growing social and economic inequality while polluting the environment and hitting the limit of natural resource depletion. The disrepair is irrefutable, but we persist in our failure to see the protests, collapses of economies, and ecocides that are surging up all over the world as part of one common problem.

The 1992 United Nations Human Development Report (HDR) called for “a world summit on human development that should be convened to enlist the support of the world’s political leaders for the objectives of the compact and their commitments to the resource requirements it will entail.” In response, the Earth Summit was created in Rio de Janeiro the same year. That summit has paved the way in forming a trajectory of global discussions on sustainable development.

Still, no such discussion has saved the world from the crisis. In the public eyes, global mega-conferences simply don’t deliver any success and suffer from exaggerated claims.

After so many disappointing conferences, the Rio+20 summit enjoys an excellent advantage over the other global conferences: incredibly low expectations. There is a little bit less than a month left, and the buzzing question in the media that is actually following the Rio process, is: What are the expectations?

What a trap. By asking the wrong questions, the media encourages standard and disappointing responses. This is how the world remains deemed a melting pot of malevolent disparity that yet again fails to attain utopia. The use of the word “expectation” in the question immediately assumes a direct and concrete “outcome” in response. No wonder that we read in the news how Rio+20 is framed as yet another impasse even before it has even happened. No wonder there are no expectations.

If global summits themselves don’t deliver real outcomes, why do they matter at all? They matter because they are the only acknowledgment that the world’s problems are interlinked and that only with collective commitment toward common goals are we all much better off.

The problem with expectations of global conferences such as Rio+20 is that they are not realistic. As Steven Hale writes in the Guardian: “We overestimate the importance of formal outcomes, and underestimate the importance of the progressive coalitions that summits can inspire.”

It is true: there will be no legally binding document coming out of Rio, there will be no serious political commitment, there hasn’t been improvement in the past twenty years, there is no organization around providing sufficient funding, a sinful carbon trade off will be made so that we can fly to the conference, only the privileged ones will be able to be there. What is maybe most striking is that, as I am writing, the majority in the world is barely surviving this day through hunger, war, injustice and disease, let alone expecting some outcome document they have probably never heard about to make everything better.

However, there are some key things we mustn’t forget. First and foremost, these conferences would not exist if there were no demands from civil society. Therefore, the civil society has as much of the responsibility for pushing the outcome as do the politicians and other power-holders have for making it possible. The responsibilities are different, but their magnitude is equal. Second, the engagement of civil society at the local and national level reflects in the discourse on the global level. Domestic politics decide whether and what outcomes from these negotiations will be implemented. Third, we must distribute our efforts wisely and understand that at this level of urgency, the world is more likely to be changed by deeds, and less by opinions or words.

Finally, the last Rio summit in 1992 has proved something to us. We haven’t seen the real change ever since, but it brought the notion of sustainable development into the mainstream. It’s sealed into politicians’ and public’s minds, and the lack of our common commitment just increasingly outlines its significance. The only sober expectation we have to have for the “outcome” of those couple of days is that there will be a strong prod to the world that we have entered a new era, marked by the global crisis that is curable only if we join our collective efforts. Therefore Rio+20 must, and will be, important.

What will happen after and between those big events is the real outcome. We must embrace the fact that those conferences hold high value of political symbolism more than they do immediate political intervention. Still, it is crucial to make that symbolism reflect the needs of people and the planet impeccably. This is why we need to unite, clearly state what we want and compel our political leaders to show genuine commitment.

Rio will be a moment in time. It won’t save the world, but even if we succumb to disaster or overcome the challenge, our descendants will know that we cared.

The Clash of Paradigms and Durban [Disaster]

by Samuli Sinisalo

In the UNFCCC, and especially in Durban, there are two major forces in play. The obvious surface is of course that of saving the planet and the climate system from disastrous anthropogenic interference. That is why these meetings are organized in the first place, and it is even inscribed in article two of the convention.

The other force in play is how is this to be done? Who should cut emissions and how much, how are countries to adapt to the climate change? This is where it gets more complicated, confusing and where the blame-game starts.

The developed countries have enjoyed unlimited access to the atmospheric space for well over a century now. Environmental concerns were hardly an issue as the global north climbed the ladder of development and brought their economies to the current standards. For the time being the amount of economic activity is closely linked to the GHG-emissions, especially if countries are to pursue the most cost-effective development strategies.

For many developing countries, the negotiations are not just questions of tackling the climate change, but also about ensuring the right to develope their economies. This has been recognized in the convention by the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR and RC). Up to now, the Annex 1 countries have had the responsibility to cut their emissions and provide financial assistance to the developing countries to deviate from their business-as-usual developmental baseline, and to adapt to climate change.

Durban was a failure because it failed to provide the next legally binding emissions reduction targets. The world has to be satisfied with the EU and a few other countries turning their domestic climate legislation into internationally recognizable form – with very low ambition. Obviously not enough.

The other promise from Durban is to negotiate a new global legal instrument, which has legal force on all countries. This is very concerning for many developing countries, and the most vocal about it in Durban was India. They reminded the world that India a major emitter due only to its size, the emissions historically, as well as per capita, are very low. They do want to preserve their right to lift people out of poverty and develope. The ladder cannot be kicked away, even as the threat of climate change becomes more dire by the day.

As time drags on, and climate change becomes more pressing, the most vulnerable countries have to accept any deal, or there will be no future for the planet. Hopefully they don’t have to sell out their own future by committing to reducing their climate footprint.

Personally I am still hopeful that the Durban Mandate might lead to something, but there is a great chance it is too little and too late. As well as it might be the wrong thing all together. It is a shame they countries failed to deliver a new outcome based on the Bali Action Plan. In the BAP, the CBDR and equity were safeguarded. But this was not enough, especially for the United States.

I put the disaster in brackets for the time being, as I hope a reason to delete it from the text would arise when negotiations get on the way again, but it might be too much to ask.

Time to come up with solutions

by Samuli Sinisalo

The final negotitations in Durban just began. The different negotiating bodies will meet in this order: Ad-hod working group on Kyoto Protocol, Ad-hoc working group on Long Term Cooperative Action, Conference of Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to Kyoto Protocol and finally the closing plenary of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC.

It’s 9pm on Saturday, the conference was supposed to be over by Friday night and we are just in the AWG-KP meeting. It looks like tonight is going to be the long night.

At the moment, there are three possible results for the outcome of Durban. Either the talks will collapse, without any decision. This would not be the ideal solution for anyone. A lot of hard work has been done throughout the two weeks, some progress has been made. The need for immediate action to address climate change is ever-growing. I believe collapse is not on anyones agenda.

Another option is to adopt the texts as they stand. That would also be a suboptimal outcome. The Kyoto text is weak in ambition and lacks legal strength. The LCA text is watered down to two different documents. One is about 40 pages long, includes a lot of good things about 1,5 degrees, ambitious goals for 2050 etc, and those are being pushed forward to COP 18. The other text is about 50 pages, but it too lacks ambition. The AWG-LCA would be closed in Durban, and ultimately killed in Qatar next year. At the same time the LCA would be replaced by a new negotiation mandate, which probably would not be as ambitious as the Bali Action Plan.

The third option is to close the COP in Durban unresolved and pick up the work in Bonn in the intersessional in June. This way the Parties would have time to really analyze the texts and options and contemplate on different options. At the moment as everyone is tired and sleepdeprived, some ministers and negotiatiors have left Durban, we are running a risk of goveling down decisions in haste, without due democratic process and debate. COP bis seems to be the optimum solution at the moment.