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Jun 22, 2012

Rio+20: doing the zombie shuffle

The Rio+20 conference on the environment is a zombie summit, shuffling through its paces dead-eyed, toothless, empty-handed, writes Peter Christoff, associate professor of environmental policy at the University of Melbourne.

As the Rio+20 Conference on the environment enters its last day, two things are certain. With its negotiated text finalised and awaiting formal approval by heads of state, the conference will not — like the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 — run desperately over time, threatened by brinksmanship, courting collapse. Nor will it deliver anything of significance.

Rio+20 is a zombie summit, shuffling through its paces dead-eyed, toothless, empty-handed. It is a ritual that lacks a clear agenda or international commitment to action. Its 53-page, 283-clause draft text can rightly be criticised as a pastiche of platitudes winnowed of substance during pre-negotiations.

Gone are notions of planetary limits critical to the raison d’etre for this conference. Gone is any tough response to the crisis of the oceans — as dramatic and urgent as that of our atmosphere. With no clear goals, no new treaties, no new funding, Rio+20 merely commemorates the monumental initiatives of the original 1992 Rio Earth Summit rather than proposing significant new ones.

By contrast, the 1992 summit — formally, the UN Conference on Environment and Development — was propelled by hope. Everyone hoped that the end of the Cold War and its arms race would produce a “peace dividend” that could solve the world’s most pressing problems of environmental degradation and poverty.

Like Rio+20, that conference was also marked by tensions between the developed and developing world. The latter wanted a radical redistribution of global wealth as the “price” for agreeing to participate in two new major treaties on climate (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) and biodiversity preservation (CBD).

Twenty years on, the same issues and tensions remain unresolved but greater. Nowhere is this evidence clearer than in the UN Environment Program’s authoritative fifth scientific Global Environmental Outlook Report — the GEO 5 — presented to the Rio+20 Summit. This report indicated that planetary boundaries and limits have now been breached. Our global environmental health — measured against 40 major indicators — is rapidly failing. Of the major planet-threatening issues, global warming and its impacts are accelerating, as is biodiversity loss. This must be the definition of a global environmental crisis.

The developing bloc’s concerns about development and “poverty eradication” have grown. Many related indicators also point to deteriorating social and economic conditions since 1992. Most millennium development goals set to address them by 2015 are unlikely to be met.

In fact, as a consequence, the environment has been reduced to a backstage prop to human development concerns in much of the Rio+20 draft text, The Future We Want.

Two decades ago, there was hope that the looming ecological crisis and tensions between environmental protection and development could both be resolved by well-funded application of the idea of “sustainable development”, freshly minted by the UN’ s Brundtland Report in 1987. This hope was framed and given substance in Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration, and the Commission on Sustainable Development, that accompanied it. Since then, “sustainable development” has been reduced to a tired cliché, Agenda 21 set aside, and the CSD poorly funded.

A key element to the specific failure of Rio+20 has been its failure to generate a new, coherent and powerful analysis of the economic and environmental failures of the past two decades, and then to respond to this critique.

Rio+20 comes at an extraordinary historical conjuncture. Days apart, two global summits have attempted to address compounding economic and environmental crises. It is only a relatively short distance from Mexico to Brazil for some of the heads of the G20, including Julia Gillard, who have flitted from one forum to the next. The deep failures of both summits are closely linked.

The G20 leaders have desperately sought to stabilise the European economies — to avert the sort of acute crisis that we saw in 2008 — by managing debt, in order to generate renewed growth. For the moment, stabilisation may seem within their grasp — a shallow success that certainly gives us temporary relief from immediate chaos.

Rio+20 and the G20 Summit confront a linked crisis — the global consequences of poorly regulated economic growth and the over-consumption of natural resources. Both aspects have been produced by failures of national and international governance — exacerbated by neo-liberal globalisation — to limit debt and environmental over-exploitation to sustainable levels.

The solution sought by the G20 (and Germany in particular) is temporary austerity in order to reinvigorate conventional economic growth and trade. And so the solution offered by one summit promises merely a return to the trajectory of environmental depletion that the second summit tries to end. It makes you wonder what the leaders are thinking as they shuffle between Los Cabos and the Rio Summit.

The key pre-Rio+20 documents contributed by the OECD and the UNEP attempted to revive the notion of sustainable development within a “green growth” paradigm. However the notions of “green growth”, “green economics” and “free trade” at the heart of the Rio+20 message still fundamentally rely, as the draft text Future We Want puts it, on “promoting sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth” and increasing “sustainable consumption”. All this disregards and intensifies the degradation of the planet’s environmental “base”.

The harder and necessary path is to further reduce aggregate global demand for material goods, the dematerialisation approach that Tim Jackson, a former member of the UK Sustainability Commission, called “prosperity without growth” in his report of the same name.

What would a global economy based on shrinking material consumption to respect planetary boundaries actually look like? How would employment be maintained? How would redistribution of wealth and resources occur within and between states in such a global economy? What is required to remove all state support and subsidies for environmentally destructive activity? Or to ensure that trade is constrained by environmental restrictions? How could political and economic constituencies be built to support and engage in this transformation?

These shifts imply and frame a new global order very different from that embodied in the Los Cabos Growth and Jobs Action Plan or the weak text of The Future We Want that Rio will bless. Such an alternative just might catalyse a future that we could really want — or at least be able live with over time. But zombie summitry will never produce such deals or outcomes.

*Associate professor Peter Christoff teaches environmental policy at the University of Melbourne. He is also vice-president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.


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10 thoughts on “Rio+20: doing the zombie shuffle

  1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    What has changed since 1992?

    The negative impact on the environment of humans has increased significantly, and the science warning us of the dire consequences of our present path has also progressed significantly.

    But I think the biggest change is that, especially in Australia and the USA, the science is now increasingly seen as just one opinion, and whether or not you support the science is now more related to a person’s political views than any rational examination of the facts.

    The ‘debate’ on climate change in Australia is the best example of this, but I think this non-science world view is now also effecting how people respond to pollution, over exploitation of natural resources, and other environmental issues.

    The Australian media have also changed significantly. The media has an important role in scrutinising the actions of the government. Previously most of this scrutiny came from experts and a balance view from vested interests. Now most of the challenge to the government is just political (so the views of Labor and Liberal are reported, and even if what they both say is factually wrong there is no longer any expert opinion). And it is noticeable how even the ABC now gives prominence to the voice of big business and almost ignores the pro-environmental side.

    As our politicians and media increasingly just cover the political circus, and as big business gains influence over the media (including the ABC) the scientific facts behind any issue become increasingly irrelevant.

    I’m very pessimistic.

  2. Microseris

    These summits are where world leaders attend to talk up the importance of placing the greater good above self interest. Then they all go home and do the same thing they have done since the previous summit, in Australia’s case talking up action to reduce carbon emissions whilst overseeing the biggest expansion in coal mining and exporting in the nations history.

    These talkfests are destined to fail because business effectively control the attending countries and steady state economies are not in their interest.

    Therefore societal and environmental collapse is inevitable, its just a case of when.

  3. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    How well has Australia done so far with reducing carbon emissions compared to other first world countries?

    The best info I could find covers 1990 (the usual base year from which reductions are measured) up until 2004.

    Germany -17.2%
    UK -14.3%
    France -0.8%
    EEC -0.6%
    Japan +6.5
    USA +15.8
    Australia +25.1
    Canada +26.6

    And in case you think Australia is doing well compared to Canada, I suspect that Australia have a starting point which included huge land clearing, and so ignoring land clearing Australia will have increased its emissions much more than 25.1%

    One of the reasons that both Labor and Liberal talk about our cuts being from 2000 (whilst most countries use 1990 as the base year) is so that the 19.2% (or more if you exclude land clearing) increase between 1990 and 2000 can be ignored.

    Not only is our embarrassing performance in ‘reducing’ emissions a disgrace, but many seem to feel that we are leading the world in taking action (Labor supporters thinking we are a positive example to the rest of the world, Liberal supporters thinking that we are about to destroy the economy).

  4. form1planet

    The questions Dr Christoff raises at the end of this article are the most important questions we are facing today. The ongoing crisis in the global economy is a tremendous opportunity to start taking them seriously – and pales in comparison to the crises we will be dealing with if we don’t.

    It beggars belief that such a massive gathering of world leaders, faced with such mounting evidence, can so totally fail to engage with the real issue – that they are clinging to an economic model, of endless growth based on consumption, which is no longer useful. It is not going to solve our problems, it is causing them. We need to move on. If you think about it, it’s an incredibly exciting challenge.

  5. Steve777

    It looks as though the long term outcome of changes to the atmosphere brought about by human activity will be determined by the laws of physics. There seems to be no chance of any meaningful agreement on concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  6. Scott

    Figures from say increase in emissions of 29.8% without land clearing, 13.6% with land clearing included between 1990 and 2010.
    Not bad when you think population has been growing at about 1.5% a year and economic growth at around 3% a year over the same period.

  7. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Given that Australia needs to significantly REDUCE its emissions to do its share to ensure that we don’t go over 2 degrees of warming, I would call the above figures very bad.

  8. Stephen

    Warble gloaming, though quite real in scientific terms, has been totally co-opted, as yet another proxy for Business As Usual.

    Unless an ‘environmental’ policy directly addresses Population, Habitat, and Biodiversity, you should assume that it is a con.

    That rule particularly applies to anything which calls itself ‘Emissions Trading’ or ‘Carbon Pricing’.

  9. Captain Planet

    More importantly Michael, the WORLD needs to significantly reduce its emissions. I note that you point out that Australia’s contribution would be “doing our share”… indeed it would… but we need the rest of the world to come along and do their share, too….. and like you, I am severely pessimistic about the likelihood of that occurring.

  10. richard52

    In reply to MWH “What has changed since 1992?”

    Peter Christof rightly points to “the monumental initiatives” of the original 1992 Rio Earth Summit” written in Agenda 21. People had the guts to tell the truth then.

    Chapter 4 (A 21) even included words (to the effect) “that it is the levels of unsustainable production and consumption in western countries that is leading to the extreme degredation of the global environment”

    This document was re-endorsed at the Johannesberg WSSD in 2002 and a 10 year framework to address western consumption and production, the Marrakesh Process, was introduced.

    That was probably the last time anyone heard a derogatory remark about the way we live or the truth about the necessary ‘downsizing’.

    When delegates leave Rio + 20 with comments such as ;

    “The expansion of trade with China can be infinite,” said Brazil’s Finance Minister Guido Mantega, as he announced a new bilateral deal on the sidelines of the Rio+20 sustainability conference. “China is fast growing and wants to stimulate consumption so they will continue to buy our commodities. There are no limits.”

    Even worse, Peter Bakker, the president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Business (WBCSD), believes that the corporate sector currently offers the best opportunity for saving the world.

    After a very long period of time trying to “be active” I feel sustainability must now be regarded as a “dirty word”, after a long time of trying to support the U.N. process and seeing the outcome at Rio + 20, Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain looks pretty good from here.