Rio +20: Beyond the Legacy of Despair

Fander Falconí

The Triple Crisis Blog is pleased to welcome Fander Falconí Benítez as a regular contributor.  After stepping down as Ecuador’s Foreign Minister in 2010, Falconi is now Coordinator of the doctoral programme in economic development at the Factultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLASCO) in Ecuador. Triple Crisis is able publish and translate his posts thanks to the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.

In June 2012, there will be a follow-up to the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro twenty years earlier. The upcoming summit (Rio + 20) will focus on two main issues: the green economy and the debate about the establishment of an institutional framework for sustainable development.

Although the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a product of the 1992 Earth Summit, underscored the historic responsibility of industrialized countries, it has not been applied in a legally-binding manner.

The UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol was adopted in December 1997 and entered into force in February 2005, after its ratification by the Russian Federation. The United States government signed the agreement, but it has not since been ratified by the successive Clinton, Bush or Obama administrations. The Kyoto Protocol has –unsuccessfully – aimed at bringing about international consensus for the most highly-polluting countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5%, minimum, between 2008 and 2012, compared to 1990.

Since 1996, the UNFCCC has organized all summits on climate change. In 2009, the Summit on Climate Change held in Copenhagen (COP-15) should have ended with an international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which is only effective until 2012. The refusal by the wealthy Northern countries to reduce carbon emissions, the absence of a legally-binding measure to fight the climate crisis, and the general pettiness and selfishness of negotiators resulted in a failure of the forum to reach any agreement whatsoever.

The Summit unveiled the crisis in multilateralism. In fact, multilateral relations and the basic procedures of the UN system were broken. In this organization every country has a voice and a vote and decisions are agreed upon by all members. Nevertheless, a small group of countries (Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the US) negotiated an agreement, behind closed doors, in which their private interests prevailed over climate change imperatives and they submitted a document to be signed by the 192 UN Member States. Thus, the Summit on Climate Change turned out to be an utter failure.

At the XVI Conference on Climate Change, held in Cancun (December 2010), no agreement on legally-binding reductions was reached either. However, a proposal was submitted for the creation of a Green Fund (USD 100 billion) to help “developing” countries in their fight against climate change, as well as to limit the rise in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius.

At the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the idea of sustainable development was also discussed and then articulated in “Our common future” (1987-1988), a report coordinated by Gro Harlem Brundtland in the context of the UN.

In his 1997 article ”Sobre el origen, el uso y el contenido del término sostenible” (about the origin, use and content of the term sustainable),  José Naredo, pioneer of the ecological economics in Spain,  describes the ambiguity and contradiction surrounding this term, which links development (with a vast tradition in economics) and load capacity (used in biology). A number of international officials (from public and private entities, and non-governmental organizations) have profited from sustainable development and an endless number of fruitless meetings have been held on the topic. In these events, energy, paper and time was wasted; rhetoric has taken priority over results.

The rapid disappearance of biodiversity due to the demise of tropical forests caused by extractive activities, cattle raising and monocultures (when carried out in fragile ecosystems) and, at the same time, an acceleration in emissions (carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is growing 2 parts per million a year) are demanding a new – ecological and supportive – economy.

From the South, it is preferable to speak of the Good Way of Living, the “Sumak Kawsay” incorporated to the Constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia, approved by popular consensus. If in 1992 the UN imposed the ambiguous, even contradictory, term of “sustainable development”, now it is preparing to impose the concept of “Green Economy” in Rio + 20 in 2012. Who knows, perhaps in 2032 the UN, or what is left of it, will propose the term “green development” and, in 2052, “sustainable economy”. Meanwhile, we continue on our way toward ecological disaster. It would be more appropriate for Rio + 20 to be the Meeting on Social and Environmental Justice.

6 Responses to “Rio +20: Beyond the Legacy of Despair”

  1. Bartosz B. says:

    It does not matter how we call it (sustainable development, green economy, or “good way of living”) – it is important that we finally agree on really protecting the Earth (and thus humanity). It is important as well that we agree on the how – already the term sustainability has become highly ambigious and unclear since 1987.

    I’d like to shortly criticize two things you wrote: I know that you are from the “South” and are rightly irritated by what “Northern” governments often do. But, nevertheless, your suggestion that it is US governments’ fault that the Kyoto protocol haven’t been ratified by the world’s biggest historic emitter is wrong – it is the Congress that has to ratify international agreements, not the president. Secondly, you seem to be suggesting that Kopenhagen’s failure was mainly the “North’s” fault. However, as far as I know, China played the chief part in the conference’s shipwreck.

  2. Fander Falconi says:

    Observation is “technically” correct, but only confirms a more robust U.S. responsibility. While the U.S. executive has no power to ratify or approve international treaties, Congress does. If this is a function of the state where all the American social forces, then we can say that, overall, these social forces, whose common will is expressed in Congress must assume full responsibility for the refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
    With respect to the COP 15, in my opinion (I respect yours), the refusal to reduce carbon emissions by rich countries of the North, the lack of a binding measure to combat the climate crisis, made this board reached agreement.

  3. Bartosz B. says:

    However, at least the Clinton administration wanted the Congress to ratify Kyoto – you cannot blame them for not being able to overcome the Congress’s refusal.

    Seen “globally”, Northern governments’ refusal to commit to significant binding emissions reductions is indeed a main reason for why we haven’t been able to reach an agreement so far. Nevertheless, China’s position in Copenhagen was no help for the process (although it changed until Cancún).

  4. Nagesh says:

    Unless governments show political will and resolve, we will not be able to make much progress. There was a huge hype before the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, but nothing much could be achieved.

  5. Milton Álvarez Viteri says:

    La ONU responde a las necesidades del Imperio y punto; los acuerdos relativos a conseguir un desarrollo sustentable para el planeta al Imperio no le importan, lo ha demostrado en todos los encuentros mundiales últimos por sobre las firmas de 192 miembros de la ONU, por el contrario a acentuado su voracidad por combustibles fósiles, levantando conflagraciones irresponsables y sanguinarias contra pueblos como el Iraki y Libio, con el fin vil de hacerse de sus reservas petroleras; lo del fondo para ayudar a los países en desarrollo también es otra burla, la reunión de Cancunhaguen generó una recolección a mediano plazo de apenas 40.000 millones de dólares para el planeta (relacionemos a Ecuador que quiere conseguir 3.000 con su ITT!!!). Las respuestas debemos seguir impulsándolas desde el Sur, presionando con nuevas Organizaciones regionales que condicionen al Imperio y todos los irresponsables que no hacen nada por reducir las emisiones tóxicas contaminantes…

  6. Do not despair. Yes Sir, there is a battle between the real sustainable development and the empty words and papers produced in its name. I am living in the Middle East ‘the cradle of humanity’ and I feel the change coming about: The Arab spring, wide spread demonstrations about economic reality in Israel and the growing awareness to the manipulation government and industry impose. I would say the future of our environment is in the hands of our growing consciousness to our ability to change our future.