MPs fear global economic crisis will hamper Rio+20 progress

Many MPs are sceptical that great progress will be made at this June’s global summit on sustainable development.

Speaking in a House of Commons debate yesterday, Martin Caton, a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: “A real danger in the run-up to Rio is that ambitions will be diminished by the global economic crisis, that we will return to the old, sterile, economy versus environment agenda, and that in practice governments will choose to define a green economy as ‘full steam ahead but with a bit of environmental window dressing”.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), to give it its proper name, will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 20-22 June 2012, to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.

It is envisaged as a Conference at the highest possible level, including heads of state and government or other representatives from every nation on the planet. The expected outcome is “a focused political document” that will plot the path towards a global green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and create the institutional framework for sustainable development.

Britain’s hopes for Rio+20

Britain is preparing its positions for the summit, but so far, only Caroline Spelman, the secretary of sate for the environment, has committed to going; who else attends, and a suggestion of a special ‘envoy’, will be decided upon in due course.

Spelman has already said: “Rio must be a workshop, not a talking shop”, and that “being green is integral to sustainable economic growth”.

Yesterday, MPs debated what the government should aim for from the summit, but the government as a whole officially believes that genuine good will and much hard work is happening all over the world.

This view was expressed yesterday by Phil Wynn Owen, director general of the International Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Office in the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), at a GovNet Low Carbon Communities Summit, who said that since taking up his post he has “met many people around the world who care about the low carbon and sustainability agenda just like us”.

He said this means: “If you ever feel we, the UK, are acting alone, it is not true”.

The post-Dakar climate discussions are already a “business plan for the world” that is in development, and the Rio+20 summit will take this forward, and, because it is the first time the world has ever attempted anything on this scale, it is bound to take time and be fraught with problems.

“We’re looking forward to the Rio+20 Earth Summit, at which world leaders including Angela Merkel will help to define what ‘green growth’ means to the world,” he concluded.

The Environmental Audit Committee Select Committee report on Preparations for the Rio +20 Summit published last month, however, describes the lack of progress on sustainable development since the first Rio Summit two decades ago.

This, the first global summit of its kind, adopted the Brundtland commission concept and established the three-pillar approach to sustainable development, which ties social and environment goals together,

Mixed trends

As the UN secretary-general admits, the trends since then on the three pillars of sustainable development are at best mixed.

He has pointed out that income poverty remains an enormous problem in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia; large disparities between regions remain on other Millennium Development Goals, including school enrolment, and maternal and child health; and one billion people are still under-nourished.

In fact, as MP Zac Goldsmith remarked in yesterday’s debate: “Every single environmental indicator that matters is heading in the wrong direction. It does not matter which area one looks at.”

The world has failed to respond to the dangers that it recognised 20 years ago, and it has lost valuable time, but in that time the scientific evidence on the consequences of failing to tackle climate change has become stronger.

We have also learned a lot more about what is happening to ecosystems, biodiversity, the nitrogen cycle and the other processes that the Stockholm Resilience Centre identifies as the planetary boundaries within which humanity can operate safely.

But, as MP Mark Spencer said in the Commons: “One of the major challenges that we, as a western democracy, face is that some of the things that we are trying to achieve are not very popular.

“For example, we are addicted to consuming, but we need to reduce our consumption.”

Sustainable accounting for natural capital

As a way out of this contradiction, at Rio Defra is hoping to use the idea of valuing “natural capital” as a way of getting nations to sign up to binding commitments.

Spelman said that “that is the key message we should get across”.

This is the approach spelled out for the UK in the coalition government’s blueprint document ‘Enabling the Transition to a Green Economy: Government and business working together’, as well as the Natural Environment White Paper.

MP George Eustice quoted one example from the white paper yesterday, that “pollinators can be worth £400m a year to our economy. As a former fruit farmer, I can vouch for that, because without the honey bees, the crop cannot be pollinated.”

Spelman, although not at the debate, has invited businesses to put forward their proposals, in such areas as sustainable accounting, where UK expertise can be used to take the lead in Rio and beyond, and to make the business case for sustainable development.

Sustainable accounting will mean valuing natural capital in economic terms, an inevitable eventuality for all business because, as Goldsmith said, “resource scarcity will define the world from now on”.

Different countries have different things to teach other. For example, Japan is much closer to achieving zero-waste status than most other developed countries.

But companies can teach by example also. For example, construction firm Uponor, based in London, has become a zero-waste company, quite something for such a traditionally wasteful sector.

The government response to the EAC report is that “the green economy is more likely to succeed if the private sector is involved. Many companies have identified that sustainable development is in their own interests”.

Environmental justice

But if things are left to business alone, poor people know they will lose out.

It is therefore a means of achieving environmental justice that is the ‘holy grail’ of the Rio+20 summit.

Hopes of setting up an International Court for the Environment have faded, and the government believes that the best it can hope for is a “relatively informal mechanism for the arbitration and conciliation of disputes relating to environmental matters with an international or transnational element”.

As EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard said yesterday on a special visit to Brasilia, Brazil’s capital: “It is extremely important at this point in history that Rio delivers a tangible outcome, something that citizens can relate to”.

She said the world requires nothing less than “a paradigm shift into a more green economy”.

Article originally published at

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