European leaders in Brussels agree on bold agenda for sustainable growth and energy access in global south, but critics are wary of promises on aid funding.
European leaders meeting in Brussels have mapped out a bold agenda ahead of the Rio summit, vowing to transform development aid, help provide renewable electricity to the world's neediest people, and strengthen the United Nations environment body.
The European Union's "agenda for change" proposal calls for pumping foreign aid into sustainable growth and energy access, while EU officials have also floated the idea of transforming the UN Environment Programme (Unep) into an agency with expanded influence and greater power to promote research and development.
Janez Potocnik, the EU environment commissioner, on Tuesday reaffirmed the 27-nation block's pledge to provide the equivalent of 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) for aid to the world's poorest countries, while urging that there be a focus on sustainable growth.
"The potential for investment and gains are massive compared to official development assistance," he said in a speech. "But at the same time the poorest countries need help, to make this promise good. That is why the European Union intends to fully meet our commitments to the poorest countries and will meet the millennium development goal of 0.7 [%] in 2015."
Meanwhile, the development commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, was expected on Wednesday to offer fresh support to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon's energy-access initiative. "Through the promotion of our technology and expertise, combined with a targeted use of our aid funding, we will aim to increase access to modern energy services for the world's poorest," Piebalgs said on the eve of an address at the European parliament.
The pledges reflect officials' hopes that the EU can be a catalyst in turning the UN conference on sustainable development into a ground-breaking shift towards low-carbon, resource-efficient economic growth after disappointments at recent climate and development summits. The conference is to take place on 20-22 June in Rio de Janeiro, 20 years after the Brazilian city hosted the first earth summit.
"We are trying to work hard to ensure that we will obtain concrete results," Potocnik said, adding: "A day will not pass by in the coming months where the Rio outcome will not be discussed in our contacts with international partners."
EU officials cite Europe's commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions, boost the use of renewable energy and improve energy efficiency as a way to tackle climate change while transforming economies and creating jobs.
Potocnik also said it was a European priority to give the Nairobi-based Unep more influence and resources.
But the European commission, the EU's executive, faces tall hurdles if it is to achieve some of these goals. Many EU countries are economically stagnant and face rising unemployment. At a summit on 30 January, EU leaders pledged to create more jobs and spur growth to address a continent-wide malaise and sovereign debt problems that have forced the union's leaders to ask for help from China and other countries with deep cash reserves.
EU leaders have traditionally seen overseas aid as an extension of their "soft power", agreeing in 2002 to provide annual development aid equivalent to 0.51% of GNI by 2010, and 0.7% by 2015 for the 15 richest EU nations.
Yet there are doubts about whether the EU can really live up to its aid commitments.
A 2011 study by the Concord coalition of advocacy organisations said that despite the €54bn ($71.5bn) in aid provided by the EU in 2010, only nine of the union's 27 countries kept or exceeded their promises on aid in 2010. The overall rate is 0.43% of GNI. The Concord group warns that at current levels of spending, aid will barely move beyond that, to 0.45%, by 2015.
"To succeed, Rio will need to put more money on the table to fund the move towards an economy based on sustainable development," Felix Dodds, executive director of the London-based Stakeholder Forum, said on Tuesday at a development conference organised by the European Economic and Social Committee, an EU body.
Dodds, whose organisation promotes sustainable development, suggests ways in addition to development aid to create greener growth: a tax on financial transactions – backed by the European commission but opposed by Britain and Ireland – and shifting the estimated $4.7 trillion held by global sovereign wealth funds into green investments.
Dodds said the consequences of inaction are high. Referring to the EU's aid commitment, he said: "If they do not do that, then seriously we are in danger of losing any trust with developing countries."