Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rio - How we lost another chance to save Earth

He was a silent witness to Edward and Bella’s honeymoon. While he might have blessed that sanctimonious tryst between a vampire and a blonde, he definitely would have winced at the appalling spectacle of an august congregation turning into a filthy orgy. For Christ the Redeemer himself silently sighed at the ingenuity of intellectual myopia displayed by a vast majority of delegates at Rio+20, the recently culminated global sustainability summit at Rio de Janeiro, the capital of Brazil. The outcome of the summit that was touted by many scientists and environmental experts as the greatest chance for global policymakers and corporates to chart out a sustainable path for global economic and social development can be summed up by a statement by Sha Zukang, the Secretary General of the conference – “This is an outcome in which no one is happy. Our job is to make everyone equally unhappy. Equally unhappy means equally happy.” 

The most pertinent question that arises from the above summary presented by Mr. Zukang is that how come a conference that is aimed to bring about ground level legally binding actionable measures to bring about changes in the way energy is used and consumption patterns are altered towards use of renewable and eco friendly resources can be termed as a platform to satiate everyone’s whims and fancies. While organisations from varied fields have been partners to the rhetoric that sustainable development is panacea to all of the world’s problems, behind this facade, the actions are clear testimony that the words green, sustainable development and renewable energy are anathema. $50 billion have been pledged by the corporate world to a UN supported programme to provide energy to the entire world by 2030. Let’s turn back a few chapters to Rio’s cousin Copenhagen, the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and $100 billion were pledged by the developed world then to the developing countries for that latter to gain access to renewable and clean energy technologies by 2025. Today, that pledge remains but only as a footnote in global climate negotiations. In fact, the Copenhagen Accord itself is biting dust somewhere. Kyoto Protocol, the only beacon of hope for the world till now, is itself about to live out its useful life but no successor is in sight. Thus, Rio was yet another platform for the global political and economic heavyweights to show that long term planning and concrete steps can become the order of the day. But, in order to keep everyone (un)happy, yet another opportunity has been squandered.

Initially, it was hoped by environmentalists and experts that the Summit would finally result in a legally binding multilateral treaty which would in the long term attain 3 objectives: Firstly, fossil fuel use would progressively be reduced and renewable energy production and use would be promoted and implemented strictly both by governments across the globe. Secondly, Poverty alleviation will models will not be based on the premise that poverty can be eliminated through massive levels of GDP growth rates which can only be achieved through incessant burning of fossil fuels. Thirdly, the world’s oceans which still contain a vast majority of all living species (see my previous article) will be preserved at all costs and desertification which is destroying arable land and enhancing net carbon emissions will be stopped through measures like re-forestation etc. which will be initiated on a priority basis.

This is what has actually been achieved in Rio. The 49 page outcome paper which has been named the “Future We Want”, has one of the major statements that the Summit as a whole agreed “to set up a process to create a high level forum on sustainable development and made decisions to establish Sustainable Development Goals.” Well, if after 20 years since the first sustainable development summit was held in Rio, we are still at a stage to set up a process to create a forum on sustainable development, it speaks volumes about what have we achieved in the last 20 years and where are we heading. If the Rio+20 Summit itself cannot be termed as a high level forum for making critical decisions for the future of mankind, nothing else can. Also, the talk about establishing Sustainable Development Goals, a term which appears to be in cahoots with the Millennium Development Goals, is just a facade to hide the inability of the delegates to reach any concrete conclusion. The single biggest farce in the entire document is that there is no standard all encompassing definition of sustainable development used to direct any further action plan. While the terms ‘sustainable development’, ‘sustainability’, ‘sustainable growth’ and ‘sustained growth’ have been used interchangeably, there is no mention anywhere as to how and by when will fossil fuels be reduced even by a certain percentage and how will renewable energy projects be implemented on a massive scale. 

However, the biggest fallacy in this entire endeavour lies in the way the words ‘poverty alleviation’ has been used as a shield by governments, corporations and individuals to continue supporting business as usual way of life which in effect means, growing use of fossil fuels, mass consumption of products and services produced using these fossil fuels to spur economic growth and thus the cycle will continue unabated. India and China, regrettably, did not come up with any proactive or innovative formula to achieve poverty alleviation through eco-friendly ways and continued to emphasise that under the principle of equity with common but differentiated responsibilities, they want the developed world to do its part in implementing a sustainable way of life and also aid developing countries in granting access to finance and technology so that the latter can shift towards an economic growth model based on clean technologies. While China, who definitely displayed leadership role during the summit by expounding that it was taking giant strides to ensure a sustainable future for itself and is ready to help other developing countries as well, it was the only country to term the final document as “comprehensive positive and balanced”. And it was in order to make the document balanced that the word ‘positive’ as stated above was lost in translation. The Chinese chief of the preparatory committee for the conference clearly stated that the importance of the final text lies in the fact that it propounds “countries adopt sustainable development strategies which are appropriate to their national conditions, rather than making such strategies inflexible.” Well, there is not an iota of doubt in the fact that national conditions as stated above (read a strong and power wielding oil, coal and gas lobbies) will never allow for the epochal shift from fossil fuels to clean and green energy resources. Thus, while poverty alleviation can definitely happen through business as usual, it will only push us towards extinction much faster.
And when it comes to saving our oceans and seas, there was virtually no mention of a future course of action on saving the nearly 98% of all species present on earth that thrive in the waters and on whom, millions of humans living in the coastal communities across the globe depend (see my previous article). While there was talk of creating an international authority to protect the waters not coming under national jurisdictions 20 years ago, we were still talking about creating an authority but by when and how are not clear at all. Similarly, in order to put a leash on rampant desertification that is gobbling up arable land and destroying large swathes of biodiversity and ecosystems at a rapid pace there are only pledges for funding to promote reforestation and stop future deforestation but again the schematics and specifics are not present. The word ‘reaffirm’ has been used 59 times in the 49 page final text. Amazingly, we are still reaffirming the need for sustainable development without even being clear on what the term means for different stakeholders, reaffirming the need to create a forum for future negotiations which is exactly what happened 20 years ago in the first summit and reaffirming the need for poverty alleviation but without any concrete commitment by developed nations to provide funding or technology help to poor nations. While the overall pledges for funding stand at $513 billion by all parties put together for a total of 693 projects, the details as to how this funding will be generated, how will it be channelized and how will it be used at the ground level will be ‘negotiated’ in the future as usual.

As one article very aptly put it, the biggest achievement of Rio+20 (termed Rio+20 -40 by many activists) was that “this conference was a conference to decide to have more conferences”.
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