Friday, June 15, 2012

Before the storm?

Every morning since I've arrived in Rio four days ago I see from my appartment windows the mountains around the city covered by a thick layer of clouds, as if Mother Nature was watching and expecting a storm during the negotiations in Rio Centro on the text of "The Future we Want", the declaration Heads of State and government are supposed to adopt next week here at the Earth Summit. There are only a few days left before the summit begins, and negotiations continue to go extremely slowly. It doesn't look like this is going to change in the next few hours unless a big storm shakes things up.

A UN high level official was telling me last night that she remained optimistic"because the politicians cannot let the summit fail". Yep, but what's their definition of success and failure? Will they come to save face, or to save the planet?  Talking of politicians, we have hardly seen any of them yet in this two year-long process. In other instances the final preparatory meeting(s) were held at ministerial level to prepare properly before the Heads of State and Government arrive. This time, with maybe one exception a month and a half ago in New York, I don't think I've seen any minister taking part directly, and by definition the mandate of the civil servants in the negotiations is too narrow.

Key issues where negotiations are stuck include:
  • Means of Implementation: that's the synonym for money here; financial mechanisms to support developing countries in the transition to sustainable development is always the key. But times have changed since Rio 92; Europe's coffers are empty -- so are the US' to the extent that that country would have political will in an election year -- so the G77 countries need to look for money elsewhere and that's quite distabilizing; 
  • Green economy: no money, no trade off. That's what developing countries are saying,  so the discussions on the transition towards "the green economy" won't really progress before there's money on the table; 
  • Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development: this is the governance chapter which is said to be progressing, but it looks like those who've been hoping that this time the 40 year old UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) could be transformed into a more powerful UN Agency (the World Environment Organization) will have to wait. 
With this background, disputes continue on key sectoral and cross-cutting issues,  including:
  • Sustainable consumption: Moderate hope that a long awaited Ten Year Action Programme on Sustainable Producion and Consumption can be launched in Rio because the US continues to oppose. Remember George H. Bush at Rio 92 saying "the American way of life is not up for negotiations"? Well, the irony is that twenty years later it is the impact of climate change that threatens the American way of life; 
  • Water and sanitation: How the right to water should be operationalized? No water, no life; and of course: no money = empty promises;
  • High Seas Conservation: the High Seas are "the other half of the Earth Summit": they represent 45% of the surface of this planet. In the last twenty years there's been a large out-of-control  high seas resources corporate fishing grab because there's no global regime that regulates human activities in the High Seas. A large coalition of like-minded countries (including the EU, South Africa, Mexico, India, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Small Island Developing States, etc.) want Rio to give the go ahead to negotiate a global High Seas regime under the Law of the Sea. But the US, Canada, Russia and Japan are opposing with a mix of fishing, seabed mining and biotech interests in their minds. This new high seas regime is critical for sustainable development, because it would require environmental impact assessments  for human activities in the high seas, criteria for High Seas Marine Protected Areas with a framework to manage them, and a mechanism for the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the exploitation of deep sea genetic resources;
  • Harmful subsidies: Governments won't be credible if they pledge in Rio that they will strive for sustainable development and a green economy, but continue at home to feed with public subsidies entire sectors that create or maintain roadblocks against sustainability. Within the framework of the G20, the OECD, the WTO, the FAO, etc. governments have already pledged to stop giving billions of dollars to the fossil fuels sector, the fishing industry or unsustainable agro-businesses. What's needed in Rio now are targets and time-tables to turn these words into action. For example, the Government of New Zealand is proposing that fishing subsidies that contribute to overfishing and the over-capacity of fishing fleets be eliminated by 2015; this is the kind of clear proposals the Earth Summit needs!
  • Sustainable Development Goals: There is strong traction for Rio+20 to signal the launch of the preparation of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that would succeed to the UN Millenium Development Goals after 2015. But the G77 countries have clearly said that they will support the SDGs only if the means of implementation are resolved. It is also unclear whether the Sustainable Development Goals will be negotiated in New York by governments in the next two years, or whether the UN Secretariat will be entrusted with the task of drafting them in informal consultation with key governments and civil society organizations.
The Ambassador of a large industrialized country who knows my ties with many Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) shared with me the other day his impression that NGOs had been "unitednationized" through this  Rio+20 process. It was his way of saying that he thought NGOs were too soft and should speak up more loudly and clearly, so that the Heads of State and Government can hear them. Unless they can hear them, how will they listen? I can't say whether the Ambassador's remark on the NGOs was entirely fair, but indeed  I agree that NGOs are indispensible natural elements to make sure that the perfect storm we need in the coming days does happen here in Rio!

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