Why The Rio+20 Earth Summit Is Another Step, Not An End Goal In Itself

If the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was a symbol of political solidarity in a post Cold War world, then the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit is a symbol of the current fragmentation in the geopolitical landscape.

As the world’s leading economies struggle with deep fiscal troubles, an emerging group of developing countries gains more power on the international stage, and citizen activists use the power of distributed social media to influence the negotiations, the structure — and therefore the outcome — of the Rio+20 summit will be fundamentally different.


And the definition of a successful meeting is largely determined by where one sits on this spectrum.

For diplomats hammering out text around the negotiating table, establishing a new framework for sustainable development goals — no matter how watered down — may be seen as a success. To the emerging economies still worried about fairness in any international agreement, the inclusion of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is crucial to any final product. To civil servants and business leaders working on the ground, establishing clear policy goals for deploying clean energy and sharing best practices is the key. And to the activists attempting to put pressure on negotiators, only strong language explicitly calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies would be seen as a win.

“You have all these worlds operating at once, and I’m not always sure how much they are talking to one another or agreeing,” said Michael Liebriech, the CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance in an interview with Climate Progress.

As a result, expectations for the final outcome are very low this week.

Liebriech offers the perfect example of why it’s so difficult to gauge the influence of Rio+20. As head of one of the leading firms providing information on clean energy investment trends, he’s witnessed $1 trillion pour into the sector globally since 2004.

“My clients really don’t necessarily care about what’s happening in the negotiations. They’re concerned about what’s right in front of them. What would you rather trust, a decades-long process that hasn’t resulted in a whole lot of progress, or a trillion dollars in investment?”

Two decades after the last Rio Earth Summit, a lot of people are feeling that way.

To be fair, the Millennium Development Goals established at the 1992 summit have served as a framework for many countries setting policies to promote clean energy, reduce local pollution, and establish water-access projects. But with the clean energy sector now taking on a life of its own, some are skeptical of how much an agreement in Rio will actually help the progress already underway.

“The sector is getting into an era where it’s starting to think beyond the support mechanism. It’s now about how do you grow to the next scale point. And I think the next question is about removing regulatory and financing barriers,” said Liebreich.

To do that, however, leaders need better access to information in order to learn from experienced countries. And that’s one of the major reasons for the negotiations — to set up a framework for helping the international community to realize new deployment methods for renewable energy, efficiency, water-access, and sustainable buildings.

“The most important thing that could come out of the negotiations in Rio right now are a discrete set of Sustainable Development Goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which will expire in 2015,” said Andrew Light, an international climate expert at the Center for American Progress.

“Though the importance of the MDGs isn’t well understood in the U.S., they’ve been important in much of the rest of the world to stimulate national policies to address these goals and to measure success. In this respect the negotiations can serve what’s actually happening on the ground now in clean technology.”

Unlike 1992, there won’t be any major framework agreement or treaty signed. Instead, the meeting is a chance to assess where we stand 20 years later, to agree on some key sustainable development goals, and to establish best practices for national implementation of clean technologies — with a central focus on harnessing bottom-up entrepreneurship to serve the 1.3 billion people without access to adequate energy.

These negotiations also play as a chess match to advance other international agreements. Because the Brazilians are under pressure to ensure the meeting doesn’t just end with a long list of watered-down promises, they could face increasing pressure to sign onto an agreement currently in the works to reduce short-lived climate pollutants like HFCs, black carbon, and methane.

So if the final text is weak, but the Brazilians agree to a framework for reducing pollutants that contribute so much to short-term global warming, is that a total failure? And if leaders can’t agree to a phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, but provide a clearer pathway to deploying the next trillion dollars of renewable energy investment, is that a failure?

There are a lot of moving parts to the Rio negotiations. The summit means a lot of things to a lot of stakeholders — a sign of the times. Clearly, Rio+20 is another step on a long, complicated road to realizing a more sustainable society, not an end goal in itself. And no one should be expecting it to play that role.


Article originally appeared in Think Progress.

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