The Future We Want? Between Hope and Despair on the Road to the Rio Earth Summit
ENVIRONMENT, 23 Jan 2012
I have been up at night a lot over the last ten days thinking about the future. You do not have to feel bad for me as the reason was a joyful one: I was carrying around my new born daughter. As I stared at her fresh face and hints of smiles, I could not but think about the future she will face or want to shape for herself. I therefore took an instant looking to the title of the draft outcome of the next Rio Earth Summit, which will take place this June. “The Future We Want“, the UN has called the document, which was first leaked and then published this week. It´s the outcome of a lengthy preparatory process, which saw governments, businesses and civil society, including Greenpeace, set out their vision for Rio in over 6000 pages of submissions.
When I started reading, though, my joy disappeared quickly. I can handle dry, bureaucratic language. But what enrages me is when people talk about the crises we face – the billions without clean water or electricity, the billion suffering from hunger, the pillage of our oceans and forests – without any sense of urgency. And lack of urgency is, above all, what this document exudes (though there is some good news especially for our oceans, so please keep reading …).
The Future envisioned here is one in which we have plenty of time to fix our problems – be they unemployment or climate change. There is a lot of talk of “acknowledging”, “resolving”, “recognizing” and “noting” in this text – all UN code words for not doing much. Sometimes the lack of urgency is even spelled out. Noting the outrage that billions each year are spent on destroying our planet through, for example, subsidizing fossil fuels, they suggest that governments at Rio commit to “gradually eliminate subsidies that have considerable negative effects on the environment“. Yes, gradually. You know, when you get around to it, dear governments. We know you are busy saving banks and bonuses. It reminds me of the old joke about British public servants shouting “What do we want? Gradual change. When do we want it? In due course”. It would actually be funny, if only the future that awaits my daughter unless we act urgently wasn´t one of runaway climate change or destroyed forests.
Another problem is a lack of spine in a lot of the proposals. It´s a great idea, for example, to make all big businesses responsible for and report on their social and environmental impacts. Indeed, 10 years ago, at the last Earth Summit in Johannesburg, governments committed to create global rules for businesses. But when the document calls for “a global policy framework requiring all listed and large private companies to consider sustainability issues“, it simply does not go far enough. We don´t need consideration, we need clear rules that can be enforced and allow those who suffer the social and environmental impacts of irresponsible businesses to get redress and justice.
Greenpeace is also strongly in favour of Sustainable Development Goals, that, for example, could set out the right to sustainable energy for all by 2020. However, if this document is not improved, all we are going to get will be a process that may result in Sustainable Development Goals “by 2015”. The goals themselves are then to the be achieved by 2030. This is inviting three years of torturous negotiations followed by more foot dragging as 2030 is way past the sell by date of most current politicians (even those in power in 2015). This is not setting out a future we want at Rio.
The lack of spine is clearest in the last paragraph which calls for voluntary commitments announced at Rio to be stapled together in a “registry/compendium that will serve as an accountability framework.” In other words, there will be no enforcement or control. Your word will be taken at face value and the “accountability framework” will be the act of stapling all voluntary commitments together in one document. An invitation to greenwash, if there ever was one.
If you thought it couldn´t get worse, it does. In some areas the document simply sells the problem as the future we (allegedly) want. For example, while the current global trade regime is part of the reason we are faced with unsustainable agriculture or empty oceans, the document calls for more of the same to solve the food security crisis and endorses the – pretty dead – unsustainable Doha trade talks.
But here is the good news! If agreed by world leaders, the document would finally end our obsession with GDP growth as it “recognize(s) the limitations of GDP as a measure of well-being” and agrees to “develop and strengthen indicators complementing GDP that integrate economic, social and environmental dimensions in a balanced manner.” This could be progress.
The document also at least opens the door to the environment finally getting a stronger voice at the global level. One option it sets out is to establish a UN Environment Agency. If (and only if) this option is agreed, this will be the first time the environment got better institutions globally for 40 years. We would be ready to celebrate that.
Finally, on oceans governance, the document says exactly what it should. You can tell by the language. It´s clear and does not put off action. It says: “We agree to, as soon as possible”, to negotiate an agreement to protect the high seas, which are currently being plundered in wild west style. That´s the kind of action we would want to see more of in Rio. That´s the kind of language that we would want to see throughout any document claiming to chart the course to a future we want.
The future I want for my daughter is not the one set out in this document. But as I carry her around once more tonight, I am more determined than ever to make sure our governments and businesses are held to account and forced to act. Join us now!
Daniel Mittler is the Political Director of Greenpeace International.
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