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Seven reasons why Rio+20 should have been delayed

(Readers please note that this post is about the failing political negotiations at Rio+20, not the business contributions, which I’ll blog about separately when the best have come to light)

1) Greece, Spain and the Euro

With the huge distractions over the future of some Southern European countries, and fallout from Greece’s looming departure from the Euro currency, Rio+20/sustainability in general are getting minimal coverage in the global media this weekend.

Economics, and conversations about growth, are top of mind. Whilst the Euro discussions have been running for a while, and could run a while longer, holding a big international sustainability conference whilst the Eurozone’s future is in doubt was a dumb idea.

It’s not for nothing that Jeff Immelt, boss of General Electric, once called the EU the global regulatory superpower, where his company is concerned.

Once we know much more about the future of that ‘superpower’ in 2013, a delayed Rio+20 could have had a much bigger impact with a more definite set of policies and announcements from a more unified European Commission and member states.

2) German energy policy and nuclear

With understandable Greek distractions, the German energy debate has somewhat fallen out of much of the Western press, for the moment at least.

But Germany’s energy future will be utterly crucial to the future of sustainable business and economies. Burning lignite to replace nuclear is not a long term solution.

Despite this, Germany generates 13% of the country’s electricity from renewables. Once Germany decides how to replace nuclear and realises fossil fuels cannot cut it, the huge fillip for renewable energy investments world-wide would provide the perfect platform for key announcement at Rio+21/22, in 2013 or 2014.

3) The US election

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation”. So said George H.W. Bush back at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Not that much has changed since, at least philosophically, for US politicians and much of the populace.

Yet November 2012 / January 2013 will be a seminal moment for US politics and the environment. With gas growth, for right or wrong, drawing attention to ‘cleaner’ fossil fuels and less coal and oil dependence, a victory for Obama, if it happens, may well give him a mandate to pursue environmental goals in a way that has simply not been possible in 2011/12.

Obama at Rio+21/12 in a year or two might feel he can be much more ambitious on policy goals for greener US growth.

4) India’s growth challenges

India exemplifies the challenges we see in emerging markets around sustainability. Vigorously lobbying against global climate agreements it feels may hobble its growth; it is now also one of the world’s largest investors in wind and particularly solar power.

India’s all-important growth rate is slowing fast, and its government is bogged down in scandal and incompetence. Yet later in 2012 and in 2013 these twin factors may assist the sustainability agenda: A Government seeking growth is likely to back renewables and sustainable technologies further and present policy as progressive for health and growth to the electorate.

Delaying Rio+20 by a year or even two could have provided India’s Congress Party with a high profile platform to launch greener investment plans to the world, and its populace.

5) Brazil’s slowdown and dilemmas

Brazil, host of Rio+20, is also going through a tough time right now. The country’s newish president, Dilma Rousseff, is still finding her feet and her allies, and trying to counteract slowing economic growth and inflation. Brazil also has key decisions around Amazon environment versus economic ‘development’ which are looming or present.

All this is a distraction from the leadership opportunity Rio+20 on home soil, could have represented for the country.

Once Brazil is clearer on how they will tackle their current challenges in a year or two, Rio+21/22 could have been just the showcase they would want to try and lead the way in forthcoming global governance competition on sustainability policy, action and incentives.

6) China’s leadership changes

China, as we all know, is going through it’s once a decade leadership transition in 2012. The new man needs to get his feet under the table, heed the recent departing words of his predecessor, and take a long hard look at hitting the targets inherent in the country’s most recent five year plan around growth and carbon intensity.

Because of the power transition happening between Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, China can’t take a proper part in Rio+20 in 2012. In a year or two it could, and can build on its recent explosive growth in renewable energy to push for global agreements that could lead to scale, at least where technology and market availability is concerned. That alone is reason enough for a short delay.

7) Zero growth boredom = Huge opportunity

The recession/depression/slowdown, whatever you call it where you are, will eventually lead to more progressive policies than simply austerity.

It is becoming clear that austerity alone simply creates a depressing downward spiral that leads eventually to modern Greece, Spain, or worse. Growth policies are coming in 2013/14, perhaps some serious stimulus through Government investments in infrastructure. Rio+20 comes too early for these.

By 2013 many countries, those safe enough to assure bond and gilt buyers of their solvency, will be pushing much harder for growth. This growth will have a much greener tinge than that we saw in 2009.

Governments the world over have realised that energy efficiency, recycling, sustainable manufacturing, greener urban mobility, less polluting energy generation, happier voters, and transport development are all mainstream stimulus and policy issues.

Rio+20 in 2013 or 2014 could have been the global showcase needed to embed this thinking all over the world.

Maybe. But it would at least have been better than flying environment ministers around the world to say, or agree on, precisely nothing.

In conclusion, kind of

All this is not to say we should be crushingly depressed: International agreements and further targets/proper incentives will come, just not during 2012.

Much as environmentalists find traditional ‘growth’ deeply problematic, it is firmly top of the agenda right now. The nuances with regard to how the term itself changes and develops will come in the future, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Showing policy makers what new, truly sustainable business growth can look like, on a scalable case-by-case basis, is where companies, NGOs, academics and others should be focused in 2012. Less beach, more research.

4 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Toby,

    Rio could well have been postponed for reasons above, but in 12 months there may well be another set of political and economic pressures to justify deferring again. E.g., German elections, potential shift to the left in Indian politics, Brazil hosting WC in 2014 and Olympics in 2016. As for china – they've already committed their 200+ billion as a play to win the green race, so I don't see them rolling that back once the new leadership is in place.

    I think the symbolism of postponing would have been far more damaging – implies that tackling the sustainability challenges of today can wait until tomorrow. Negates any sense of urgency, in my view. As we have discussed on a few occasions, we have to start seeing these conferences as milestones along a particular journey, not load excessive expectation onto them as a stand-alone forum when the problems of the world are fixed in one go.

  2. All good points well made. The problem is that these events are not milestones, or anything resembling them. The old adage of "if you have nothing to say, say nothing" applies I believe.

    Three key things mean I do believe in what I wrote: 1) The EU needs to show leadership and it cannot do that in 2012.

    2) The new China boss will certainly shape things the way he wants, current commitments aside. (He apparently is a little less progressive than Hu, but let us hope not) Giving him a keynote speech or something similar could have focused his mind on Chinese pride/face for 2013/14

    3) India and Brazil are struggling to adapt to lower growth rates. By 2013/14 they may have done so, at least better than currently, and be able to push on from there with greener growth

    Delaying could have been an embarrassing shot in the arm to governments (although of course it would have been a huge risk, I accept that) and set a deadline for realistic announcement in 2013/14 (some of which have to come anyhow given Kyoto expiration…so use it as a platform for that)

    No naiveté about solving it all in one go on my part: But the fact remains it’s absurd to hold a conference with zero agreement / substantive announcements. That breeds more cynicism, ultimately, than delaying it.

    I know it will spark some debate, which is partly why I wrote it! 🙂

  3. Anonymous

    there is some good stuff coming out of the corporate forum – responsible insurance principles, green industry platform to 'drive' technology sharing to SMEs in developing mkts in particular, etc… But this likely doesn't cross over and get noticed in the intergovernmental arena. So holding Rio has had value for the corporate and stakeholder groups, but It's a separate debate from next weeks nonsense.

  4. Very much agree: We'll be writing about a lot of that in the next issue of the magazine. There are 100-500 big companies are doing some ever more interesting and strategic work on sustainability products, services and operating models. Thank god someone is.

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