Rio +20 Earth Summit: Greens Fail to Get The Future They Want

Reason's Science Correspondent sends his fifth dispatch from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.


Rio de Janeiro—"Politicians are spinning this outrageous deal as a victory but in fact it is nothing less than a disaster for the planet," said Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International in a press release. Bassey added, "This is a hollow deal and a gift to corporate polluters that hold U.N. decision-making hostage to further their economic interests."

Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International Executive Director, piled on too, declaring, "Rio+20 has turned into an epic failure. It has failed on equity, failed on ecology and failed on economy."

And Jim Leape, international director general of World Wildlife Fund, protested, "It's pathetic. It's appalling. If this becomes the final text the last year has been a colossal waste of time."

Perhaps as many as 100,000 activists and students joined this sad chorus, participating in a protest march here in Rio to express their anger at the failure of Rio +20 to give them the world they think they want.

What has provoked all of this high dudgeon from these environmentalist ideologues? A document entitled, The Future We Want, which basically is the agreement that government officials from 193 countries are expected to endorse on Friday at the close of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development here in Rio de Janeiro. As someone who has been covering U.N. environmental conferences since the first Rio Earth Summit two decades ago, the fact that the text of a document was completed before the politicians showed up at a United Nations meeting is flabbergastingly unprecedented. This feat was achieved because the Brazilian negotiators mostly eliminated from the text any firm commitments by the nations of the world to do anything.

Economics Nobelist Friedrich Hayek has argued, "The phrase 'social justice' has no meaning because no two people can agree on what it means." It becomes quite apparent that the phrase "sustainable development" also has no real meaning after scanning through the 60 pages of The Future We Want. The document calls for making every product and every activity "sustainable," e.g., energy production, agriculture, raising livestock, fishing, logging, water usage, sanitation, even tourism. But the term itself is never defined.

Consider paragraph 40, which reads: "We call for holistic and integrated approaches to sustainable development which will guide humanity to live in harmony with nature and lead to efforts to restore the health and integrity of the Earth's ecosystem." What can that possibly mean? The Future We Want has no less than 36 such "call fors" all sorts of things. This brings to mind Glendower in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 who tells Hotspur, "I can call spirits from the vasty deep." To which Hotspur replies, "Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?" In the context of this final agreement at the Rio +20 Earth Summit, the Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and WWF clearly know the answer to that.

But one can never be too careful in pruning a United Nations document. I came across three possible thorns hidden in the luxuriant verbiage of The Future We Want. They include launching a process to define a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), revving up the newly created Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and demands to shower more foreign aid from rich countries onto poor countries.

The SDGs would be modeled on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that were adopted in 2000 by the United Nations General Assembly. Among the eight MDGs are promises to eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, and ensure environmental sustainability.

As noted, there is no agreed upon definition of sustainable development. The Future We Want aims to remedy this situation by getting countries to approve in September at the U.N. General Assembly a working group of 30 people to devise a set of SDGs that would be adopted the next year. What might constitute an SDG? An issue brief [PDF] put together by the U.N. for the Rio +20 conference suggests that specific goals might be set with regard to production and consumption patterns, livelihoods, climate, clean energy, biodiversity, water, forests, agriculture, and so forth. Various sustainability indicators would then be devised to measure progress toward the new SDGs similar to the 96 indicators [PDF] currently promoted by the U.N.'s Commission on Sustainable Development. These indicators evaluate trends in poverty, crime, health, education, and population. One problem with this process is that development, much less sustainable development, is being defined largely as a political rather than an economic process. This means that some years down the line, activists are likely to seek to transform mere indicators like a "clean energy" SDG into actual mandates.

The United Nations is now in the process of "operationalizing" the new Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Explicitly modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the IPBES is supposed to do for global biodiversity what the IPCC has done for global climate change. It is not hard to imagine what mischief this might cause.

The Future We Want states that the signatories "recognize that the fulfillment of all ODA [official development assistance] commitments is crucial, including the commitments by many developed countries to achieve the target of 0.7 per cent of GNP for ODA to developing countries by 2015." Getting the rich countries to send them 0.7 percent of their GDPs has long been an aspiration of the governments of poor countries. For example, that goal was agreed to at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development back in 2002. Under that goal, the U.S. contribution would amount to $108 billion under this formula. According to U.N. data, the U.S. has set no timetable for meeting a 0.7 percent commitment and in 2005 spent only 0.22 percent of its GDP on official development assistance.

Although there may be some regulatory thorns lurking in The Future We Want, there are a few roses too. For example, paragraph 26 declares, "States are strongly urged to refrain from promulgating and applying any unilateral economic, financial or trade measures not in accordance with international law and the Charter of the United Nations that impede the full achievement of economic and social development, particularly in developing countries." This amounts to a prohibition of using green regulations or tariffs as excuses for trade protectionism.

In the evening I stopped by the celebration of Sustainia100 at the luxurious beachfront Copacabana Palace Hotel. The event was supposed to feature the former Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he canceled. However, IPCC chair Rajendra K. Pachauri, and the European Union's Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard did show up. As The Guide to Sustainia explains its goal is to set a "new tone in communication about sustainability. Rather than representing a future of sacrifices and restraints, Sustainia shows us how sustainable solutions can contribute to real improvements in people's lives." On the basis of the pre-event cocktail party, Sustainia is inhabited by attractive women sleekly dressed in chic fashions and men in tailored suits. I am very happy to report that in Sustainia champagne and foie gras are still served.

Although the The Future We Want is supposed to be a done deal, there is talk that some countries might try to reopen it so that it can be "strengthened." I will report on that and the disappointed hopes of environmentalists tomorrow.

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).