11 June 2012

Rio-rdering Priorities at Rio+20: Time to Face up to the Politics of it all

I'm 53 this week, and this prompted a game with my kids (11 and 10) in which they told me what they thought their world would be like when they were 53 (the years 2053-54).   

We talked about what they might end up doing, where they would live and, of course, hovercars.  

I couldn't help wondering about what the air, oceans and rivers would be like.  

The Rio +20 conference is only a week or so away, and more global attention than usual is focused on what the air, oceans and rivers will be like in, say, the year 2053-54.

It's hard to know what to make of this temporary defeat of our chronic attention deficit on sustainable development.  Undoubtedly it's an opportunity for all of us to rededicate attention how we achieve three things simultaneously: 

(1) complete the MDG agenda, 
(2) bring the planetary management agenda to maturation, and 
(3) continue to pursue national interests

If you think of these three as circles, the overlaps are not necessarily large.  For example, green growth does not have to be poverty reducing growth (indeed, some G77 countries think it is rich country code for slow growth); poverty reduction might entail high levels of GHG emissions, and national interests such as energy subsidies (which favour the richer groups who use more energy) serve neither MDG nor planetary management goals.  

But the signs are not great that Rio+20 will be a watershed moment:

* as of last week, 70 of the 329 paragraphs of the revised zero draft were agreed, with 259 containing bracketed text--historically this is a very low proportion of agreed on text only 10 days away.. 
* confidence in intergovernmental collaboration is very low in the wake of the last 3 climate meetings and the eurozone crisis 
* I am told there is a sense among those within the negotiating processes that Environmental ministries have struggled to bring Finance ministries along with them and are not terribly well practised in the art and craft of international relations, thus slowing down agreements..

But there are some causes for optimism

* national policies still really matter because: (1) many environmental issues are local and national (e.g. water and air pollution), and (2) many actions driving global environmental externalities are a result of decisions taken by national governments, e.g fossil fuel subsidies which dwarf ODA and subsidies of other energy sources.  This means that national and local civil society has a good chance to influence national and global policies--this realisation is important in the wake of events like Copenhagen that give us little faith in the ability of world leaders to forge agreements. 

* there is a recognition that metrics matter: (1) several African countries have signed up to an initiative to include natural resources in their national accounts, (2) the Sustainable Development Goals will force everyone to think about what dimensions we really want to track and how we would do that and how does that link to the MDGs, and (3) for the first time business performance could be measured by, say, a beefed up Global Reporting Initiative

* there is a realisation that the UN environmental norm-setting agenda is weak and that there is a need for something like a World Environmental Organisation (WEO) or a substantial strengthening of UNEP, the UN's Environmental Programme.  Set against this, there is the reality that WHO and FAO are far from perfect, although part of this is historical baggage that any WEO would be free from. 

But if the optimism is to be converted into achievement beyond Rio, then the following need to happen:

* Politics needs to take centre stage.  This will appal some of the scientists who already think science is not getting a look in at Rio. But think about it: sustainable development involves tradeoffs between current and future generations, between countries with a lot of growth under their belts and those who are just getting a taste for it, between those who will be winners, losers or neutral from climate change, between different government departments and between national sovereignty and international common good. (As an example, the politics over where a new WEO would sit--France/Germany or Nairobi--and who would run it have threatened to kill off the idea.) All of this sounds like a lot of politics to understand and negotiate and we better bring it out into the open.  My IDS colleagues Melissa Leach and Matthew Lockwood have written interesting pieces on this issue. 

* More lateral thinking to understand multilateral inertia on the environment.  What can we learn from other multilateral efforts?  For example, can we learn from the 1987 Montreal Protocol which has led to a near closure of the ozone hole? A treaty was agreed because the evidence of the threat was relatively uncontested, the nature of the threat was tangible for most people--especially the richer countries (cancer), the chemical and industrial changes were relatively straightforward, and no great changes in lifestyle were required (unless you really have problems with roll on deodorants).  Pretty much none of these conditions hold for global warming, so we know we have a big challenge on our hands, but can we learn from any of the ozone strategies?  Can we learn from the trade failures (see an interesting article from Patrick Low at WTO, an IDS alumnus)?  Or on financial regulation?  Or on nuclear proliferation?  The environment is not the only component of sustainability.    

* To ensure the impact and value for money movements do not divert resources away from research for the kinds of institutional and governance interventions that will be required to incentivise an alignment of the planetary, MDG and pure national interest agendas.  How would you justify , ex-ante, the development of new metrics based on value for money?  How would you do an impact evaluation ex-post?  Not impossible, but as Kahneman says in "Thinking Fast and Slow", when confronted with a really difficult question we tend to substitute an easier one for it. 

Finally, we should not forget about people (see this nice piece from Camilla Toulmin).  It will be a real challenge to remember human welfare when we start talking about energy targets, ocean targets, city targets and atmospheric targets.  

The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 was fuelled by the optimism of the post Cold War era.  The 2012 Earth Summit has optimism tempered by the current global economic slowdown and the nationalism that fuels.  

But if the Rio+20 meetings can:

* fire up national movements to nudge national consensus positions towards more responsible resource use
* put in place a practical but inclusive process for developing a realistic set of SGDs by 2016 
* strengthen the UN to set and monitor norms, and 
* generate some interesting ideas about financing

then maybe, just maybe, the Earth Summit of 2022 will be able to capture this consensus to deliver on definitive actions that make 2053 liveable and sustainable.   

With hovercars (green, naturally).  


David Rieff said...

Dear Lawrence,

Food for thought (if you'll pardon the cliche), as always. And as someone with a young child, whom obviously I will not live to see into
middle age, your concern about what your kids will find in 2053 or 2054 resonates deeply. Nor do I want to deprecate hope, especially inter-generational hope, even if the ironist in me is reminded of Groucho Marx's great question: 'What has posterity ever done for me?' Still, when you write that "the signs are not great that Rio+20 will be a watershed moment," I'm reminded that after the Nagasaki bomb, Emperor Hirohito gave a speech to the nation saying that the war had "not necessarily worked to Japan's advantage."

You write of bringing the planetary management agenda to maturation. What you are speaking of, for that goal to have any meaning, is of course strengthening the UN's authority to set global development and environmental policy. But the UN has not been this weak since before the end of the Cold War. You know this obviously, which is why you scathingly contrast Rio '92 with Rio '12. But in my view you don't ask the hard question: what if the UN system (including conferences) as means of expanding and improving global governance and global stewardship is a non-starter, and, as I believe, just preventing the UN from being marginalized further will be a tremendous accomplishment in and of itself? Does it really make sense to put a great deal of effort into another decade of Rio-style conferences. Or are they, as Alex de Waal once wrote in another context, "a waste of hope?"

Activists, too, have limited resources --- psychic, I mean, as well as organizational, financial, ideological, and political. If these conferences are, as I believe them to be, a waste of hope, just as believing that the great emerging powers and the US will ever allow the UN to be strengthened, seems like an exercise in wishful thinking, which is not the same, as must never be allowed to be confused with the entirely defensible idea that to get anything done one must remain optimistic. And if you'll forgive me, there is a wee bit of eurocentrism in your account in this post in the sense that new norm setting and the ceding of power to trans-national entities is of a piece with the institutional development of the EU (and even in Europe, with the EU project teetering, how much can Brussels really be expected to do?).

I guess what I'm asking you to consider is what the efforts you spend your life trying to further and develop would look like if strengthening the UN system is a non-starter, and if conferences like Rio+20, however well intended, are, as a category, past their sell-by date? What should activists do then? I would submit to you that thinking about this 'Plan B' is an urgent need, not a nay-sayer's luxury.

Best, as always,


Lawrence Haddad said...

David, this is such a great comment. I remember being positive about the UN conferences of the 90s which led up to the MDGs. So I'm not as pessimistic as Alex de Waal (who I have a lot of time for) about UN conferences per se. I am much less optimistic about UN conferences that urge fundamental changes in rich country behaviour (aside from ODA)--here the UN has no power at all.

On the planetary agenda, we do need to begin discussing plan B-- I agree. The problem is what to do. I was at a meeting with MPs yesterday and was stressing that RIo+20 is just part of a longer term process. I feel that this movement will not reach a tipping point until some catastrophe presents itself...however I have a hard time imagining what that might be given the relatively slow burn that is the squeezing of the planet... Where has your thinking on Plan B taken you?

Best, as always, Lawrence

Phillip Mario said...

Waiting for solutions and feedback from this conference can be a waste of time. Why don’t people start the green program with their selves, I think that would help the government with their green advocacy. People must realize that we need the change right now to prevent catastrophes to happen and to give our children a bright future and a healthy environment in the future.