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Rio Earth summit: The ‘Future We Want’ is not the future we’ll get

Guest Post by Paul Hohnen.

The Rio Earth summit didn’t make the necessary progress, and there’s not a lot of time left for the global economic and social changes of direction we must make

As a former diplomat, I know that part of the job is to portray a glass half empty as a glass half full. An agreement is better than no agreement at all. And a cow pat is biologically produced fertiliser.

In this context, I can fully understand the positive spin put on the Rio conference agreement entitled The Future We Want.

Yes, it was attended by unprecedented numbers of countries, companies and advocacy groups. Yes, it was good that the developing world played a more active role in shaping the outcomes. Yes, it took forward international discussions on the need to better align economic and market forces (eg on the benefits of a “green economy”) and improve international governance on sustainable development.

And yes, I recognise fully that short term political pressures associated with the global economic conditions and the US elections made it difficult to take action that could create a backlash in economies struggling variously with poverty, unemployment and public debt.

However, the conference outcomes – such as they are – almost guarantee that the future we’ll get will be very different from The Future We Want.

Let me give two reasons why Rio+20 will not bring us closer to a future where all are lifted out of poverty and hunger and live in a world where the fruits of economic growth are more evenly shared. And, why Rio+20 has, unintentionally, probably changed the future direction of the sustainability discourse.

The role of science

The conference document contains multiple references to the need to “promote the science-policy interface”, including through “inclusive, evidence-based and transparent scientific assessments”. This is an important commitment to reaffirm.

However, Rio+20 failed to address – or answer – the wider question of why science-based recommendations on a range of pressing ecosystem issues over the last 40 years or so, on the state of the world’s forests, fisheries and climate to name a few, have been so poorly taken up in policy.

The fifth Global Environment Outlook (GEO 5 [2]) report, the most recent and authoritative assessment of the state of the planet’s natural systems, assessed that out of the 90 most-important environmental goals and objectives set by governments since the 1992 Rio conference, significant progress had only been made on four.

This science-based report, referenced in the conference document, essentially concluded that if humanity does not urgently change its ways, several critical thresholds may be exceeded “beyond which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet could occur”.

In short, while the scientific case is clearer than ever, governments and others continue to ignore or underplay it. While paying lip service to science, Rio+20 has again ignored its own best advice.

The role of economics

The sense of urgency conveyed in the GEO 5 report is nowhere to be found in the conference document.

Priority attention, rather, is given to the eradication of poverty and hunger as “the greatest challenge facing the world today” and the heart of sustainable development.

Now one might agree with this assessment if the document went on to do two things. First, point out that, for the reasons set out in GEO 5 report, it will not be possible to attain the same development levels in the emerging economies as the developed world currently enjoys without a fundamental change in the economic and industrial model which has brought us to this point.

Nature simply cannot keep replenishing stocks of raw materials at the rate at which they are being harvested, and it is not replacing stocks of oil and gas at all (or not at a rate that will make any difference). Our public financial debts pale by comparison with the ecological debts we are racking up.

Second, to agree on a set of policy actions that prioritise the rapid transition to a low carbon, resource efficient “green economy”.

While Rio+20 gives an important nod towards the concept of a green economy, it did so as if this was one of many choices open to countries in determining their future economic development. Under pressure from countries subscribing to the “dig it up, cut it down, sell it cheap” development model, Rio+20 has sent a signal to financial markets that there will be no major changes in the short term.

As a result, we are no nearer to the carbon tax, fisheries protection zones and ecosystems valuation methods needed.

The underlying cynical logic of this strategy involves a huge gamble.

This is essentially that a growth spurt based on the old resource-intensive development model will enable more countries to be more resilient to the systems changes which GEO 5’s critical thresholds are expected to bring, and that these benefits won’t be swiftly swept away by the profound changes that this behaviour will accelerate.

In short, Rio+20 has done nothing to address the underlying problems of short-term thinking and investing in ecologically (and often socially) destructive economic activity.

And the good news is?

I suspect that the greatest changes in the next decades will come not from what Rio+20 decided, but from what it didn’t do.

The negative ecosystem trends, sadly, will continue to worsen and governments will be forced to revisit them. Again and again. (Parallels with European finance minister summits and the future of the Euro spring to mind. As do endless bailouts.)

The politics surrounding sustainability will sharpen. Greenpeace has declared war on the financial and business model that it sees behind the eco-meltdown. Even the Economist [3] has finally discovered that climate change and melting Arctic is an issue the world would be “mad to ignore”.

The battlelines are being drawn, with polluting and resource inefficient industries on one side, and job-creating value-adding green economy industries on the other. This, too, is a confrontation that is here to stay.

Finally, Rio+20 has demonstrated that global intergovernmental processes won’t deliver the needed change. (To its credit, the conference document does as much as admit this.) In some respects, their main contribution has been to bring together civil society actors to form a myriad of initiatives, individual and collective, to take action.

In this, Rio+20 was no exception. New multi-stakeholder coalitions emerged around green industry and sustainability reporting, to name just two.

The sustainability agenda is set to transform into the survivability agenda. The security genes are already kicking in. Politics will polarise further. Technology will develop swiftly. Climate and ecosystems will change. Things will be messy.

But ever more clearly, the choices of living within the system limits are becoming clearer and more pressing. The period of denial is coming to an end.

Paul Hohnen is an Amsterdam-based consultant who advises, speaks and writes on global sustainable development and CSR issues. Among his affiliations he is an associate fellow of Chatham House and a member of the Ethical Corporation advisory board.