Sunday, January 29, 2012

Give me a triple expresso in Rio

I've spent the last week in New York, mainly to attend what is called in UN jargon "informal informals", a process to facilitate the negotiation by Member States of  "The Future we Want", the outcome document of the Rio+20 conference scheduled to take place June 20-22, 2012 for the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to (according to the UN General Assembly)"secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and address new and emerging issues."

As an adviser to several organizations, I've been attending the preparatory meetings for Rio+20 pretty much since the process began over a year ago. And one concern I have is that -- although there are environmental and development NGOs that are doing good work in their respective fields -- I don't yet see them with one narrative or track that the majority of them can run with together, both at the international and national level. As a result, instead of receiving one or several clear key messages from civil society, with some exceptions what governments are getting essentially sounds like a background noise to which it's hard to listen.

I'm sure though that there are ways to create synergies so that large segments of the NGO community -- environmental, development and other advocacy NGOs -- work together while preserving and reinforcing their respective agendas and identities. I was involved for example during the last Earth Summit ten years ago in Johannesburg with such an initiative which we'd called at the time ECO-Equity coalition. Because  we focussed together on a small set of key issues, the NGOs in that coalition could be heard in and outside the meeting rooms. Despite their differences, NGOs working on climate change are also good at working together, for example via the Climate Action Network (CAN) and the Global Campaign for Climate Action (Tctcktck).

I've been wondering last week in New York what could be a good way forward this time, and one thought is that maybe time is ripe is to concentrate efforts on the elimination of environmentally harmful subsidies. Of course this is not a new idea per se; many intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations have been working on this issue for many years and governments have made numerous pledges already. But there are reasons to believe that the time is now, because now everyone has public deficits in their heads, and what's good about addressing environmentally harmful subsidies is that it doesn't require additional resources; quite the opposite, it would free considerable resources which could be reallocated. Since the Rio+20 process started everyone has been wondering (more or less loudly) how to mobilize world leaders and the general public for a new Earth summit when they're all traumatized by the worldwide financial turmoil. Well, the elimination of harmful subsidies as the key ask may be the answer, or a big part of it.

The UN's idea with Rio+20 is to kick start in Rio initiatives to boost "the green economy", but it's not going to work if governments continue to fuel "the grey economy" with billions of dollars in support of environmentally damaging and destructive activities. For example, according the OECD's International Energy Agency (EIA), in 2010 governments' subsidies to fossil fuel consumption amounted to 409 Billion US Dollars. Subsidies in the fisheries sector continue to enhance fleets over-capacity and cause overfishing worldwide, etc. Governments recognize the problem; it's been addressed for years in UN fora, the World Trade Organization,  the G20, the European Union, etc. but business as usual dominates. Put bluntly, it's time for governments to put their money where their mouth is.

For example, the UN Secretary-General is issuing this week the final report of the High Level Panel on Global Sustainability formed a year and a half ago; the role of subsidies is highlighted in the report but, as the Secretary of the Panel Janosz Pastor said at a briefing last week in New York, the panel members were unable to reach consensus to recommend the elimination of  environmentally damaging subsidies in the fisheries and agriculture sectors; for the fossil fuel sector they're recommending a phase out only of "inefficient" subsidies, leaving it to governments to determine which ones are deemed inefficient. If a 20-member panel can't agree, what hope is there that the 193 UN member States can ever agree if civil society doesn't prioritize? Under the aegis of the Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI), several organizations are calling on Rio+20 to pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies; maybe this is something to build from and expand.

The "zero draft" outcome document currently under negotiation for Rio contains two place-holders addressing the issue. Paragraph 42 (c) would commit governments "to gradually eliminate subsidies that have considerable negative effects on the environment and are incompatible with sustainable development, complemented with measures to protect poor and vulnerable groups". And if Paragraph 126 remains, governments would "support the eventual phase out of market distorting and environmentally harmful subsidies that impede the transition to sustainable development, including those on fossil fuels, agriculture and fisheries, with safeguards to protect vulnerable groups".  Note the word "eventual": even before negotiation has begun in earnest, the document is decaffeinated. Give me a triple expresso, please.

This blogpiece is also available in español, HERE (AQUI) on the website of the Spanish news agency EFE.