Why I won’t be going to Rio+20

This post by leading British environmentalist Tony Juniper is a reflection on being at the last Earth Summit in 1992 and how far we have come since. It is an extract from his contribution to a collection of writings about the Earth Summit, Rio+20: where it should lead, published by Green Alliance and the RSPB. 

Being at the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio is one of those experiences that is hard to forget. It was the largest gathering of world leaders ever to take place. Alongside the thousands of campaigners and advocates many global icons were in town too, from the James Bond actor Roger Moore to the Dalai Lama.

And what a place to have such a meeting, with the opulent beachfront apartments laid next to some of Latin America’s largest shanty towns, and all set against the backdrop of dramatic hills clad with some of the last fragments of Brazil’s fast disappearing coastal Atlantic rainforests.

The unprecedented attention that the 1992 Rio Summit attracted was in part down to the increasing prominence of various ecological challenges. A hole had been discovered in the earth’s ozone layer. Pictures of burning rainforests were being beamed into TV sets. People were also beginning to hear about climate change.

I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, with colleagues from Friends of the Earth International, to persuade negotiators and ministers to take the decisive action needed. Looking back at those two weeks in June 1992, some remarkable things happened, not least the fact that six agreements came out of the summit, three of which were major, legally binding conventions: on climate change, biological diversity and desertification.

With the benefit of hindsight, the first Rio Summit was clearly a major landmark, although it has to be said it didn’t seem like that at the time. In our view, the climate change convention was woefully inadequate, the one on biological diversity was not much better, and the agreement on desertification was to weak to make much difference.

Rio+20 and the green economy
So what now, for the summit that marks the 20th anniversary of the historic 1992 meeting?

In the wake of a global financial crisis and economic slowdown the sustainable development agenda has recently undergone some level of reframing. It is summed up in the concept of the ‘green economy’.

For those active on the sustainable development agenda since the original Rio Summit, and indeed before then, the idea of a green economy is not new. The notion that development and economic strategy needs to be integrated with environmental goals has been obvious for some time.

The idea has undergone rapid reheating, with various international agencies and technical processes publishing reports and convening meetings to raise the profile of the opportunities embedded in greener economies. So should we expect a breakthrough of some kind? I certainly hope so, but more likely we should expect the emergence of familiar sounding words of encouragement with little of substance to actually accelerate the growth of a global green economy.

In the UK we can see quite clearly why the idea of the green economy might struggle. Despite various pre-election rhetorical flourishes from David Cameron and Nick Clegg on opportunities for joining up green goals with economic recovery, they have simply not delivered and have, in several respects, gone into reverse.

For example, various policy choices have cut the speed of expansion in renewable energy and, thus, the contribution the sector might make to economic recovery.

Thankfully this mindset is not shared throughout the world and some countries, including South Korea and China, have seen action to green their economies as opportunities to enter new global market. But the fact that opinions diverge even on the motherhood-and-apple-pie idea of a green economy is more than somewhat troubling.

It might be that talks in Rio could lead to the possible future agreement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These would replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have focused mainly on combatting poverty, rather than the environmental dimensions of sustainability. But even if such a new framework for international co-operation does begin to take shape, its impacts will not be felt for some time.

A new hope
If I am right to hold only these rather modest expectations for Rio+20, does that mean we should abandon hope? Well, of course not. What it does mean, however, is that it might be time to put more effort and imagination into those avenues for change that might deliver in other ways. I suggest three priorities to be getting on with:

  • The first is to get sustainable development and environmental issues back on the agenda within individual countries, including here in the UK. It would be a good idea to plan now a campaign in key marginal seats where environmental issues can be made more prominent by environment and conservation groups. In many seats the combined members of green groups are more numerous than the voters who made up the majority of the sitting MP at the previous election.
  • A second area for more concerted action is among private sector companies. An increasing number of businesses understand the challenges of sustainability and are doing something about it. Can we help expand the market share of those businesses who are taking action and mobilise them to challenge those politicians who still see a choice between environmental and economic goals?
  • The third priority is perhaps the most challenging of all. It is about finding ways to reconnect people with the realities of how the earth works. A fish and chip shop owner who is taking steps toward more sustainable sourcing recently told me that he has had people in his shop who didn’t know that the fish and chips actually comes from fish.

For all the challenges, I remain optimistic about what can be achieved in the years ahead. I will not be going to Rio+20, however. I will instead put my energies into making the case for the green economy here in the UK. I will continue to help leading private sector companies at the expense of their laggardly competitors and I will do my best to raise awareness about what we are up against, and what need to be done to fix it.

I wish Rio+20 every success. But having been in Rio 20 years ago, and at many of the meeting since, it seems to me that now is the time for bottom up pressure to help fill the vacuum that is increasingly evident at the top.

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