Weak agreement expected at Rio+20

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Third Pole, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A political resolution to be signed by over 100 heads of government neared completion in Rio de Janeiro on Monday. But the agreement that was supposed to chart the course of the earth will fail to do so in many significant respects, unless there is a change of heart at the last moment. 

Host country Brazil used its stature to ensure the UN Conference on Sustainable Development will not be called a failure. But in the process, various interest groups ensured that there will be little money to help developing countries move towards a greener future. The means of implementing global treaties worked out at the 1992 Earth Summit remain unclear. There will be no specific sustainable development goals (SDG) right now, only an overall statement of intention. And there may not be an agreement to protect life in the high seas. While there is overall agreement on upgrading the UN Environment Programme, there are differences over a significant detail.

But delegates from 193 governments and officials of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) were wearing broad smiles throughout Monday, largely because they had reached agreement over advancing the green economy concept. There is now a hope that national budgets will take the depletion of air, water, soil and minerals into account. 

Two of the three economists who have developed the concept – Partha Dasgupta, Amartya Sen and Kenneth Arrow – are Indian. Despite this, developing country governments, including India, have been very uneasy about accepting the idea that all governments should move towards a green economy. They have been worried that this will become a cover for trade protectionism by industrialised countries, which is how they see the aviation fuel cess by the European Union, for example.

But on Monday morning, a senior negotiator for the Group of 77 countries plus China told The Third Pole, “There are now safeguards against trade protectionism written into the agreement draft. So we are satisfied with it.”

The draft was prepared by Brazilian negotiators on Sunday evening and was a compromise between the positions of industrialised and developing countries, according to an Indian official. The main area of disappointment for the developing world was that there was no promise of funding to help them protect biodiversity or adapt to climate change effects, nor any relaxation in the intellectual property rights regime to help them buy solar panels and windmills more cheaply than now. These are among the chief “means of implementation” of the 1992 agreement over which talks have been stuck for months, and they remained stuck on Monday evening. Bureaucrats predicted that they would have to ask presidents and prime ministers to take a decision on this, not something that heads of government like to do.

The many NGOs following the summit were disappointed because Rio+20 would fail to come up with a list of SDGs on the lines of the Millennium Development Goals, nor would there be a timeline. Those crucial details will now have to be worked out by the governments, and the negotiations may be protracted.

Another big worry on Monday was whether the agreement to protect the oceans would go through. It was stuck over the issue of protecting biodiversity in international waters. Although almost all countries want this agreement here and now, delegates from USA, Canada, Japan and Russia had objected to even discussing the point in Rio, according to an observer from the academic think tank, PEW Centre. These delegates said the issue was being discussed in another UN forum, and should be kept there, though it has been hanging fire for years.

The other big uncertainty was the extent to which UNEP will be upgraded. The programme has only 53 member countries right now, and there is agreement that its membership be made universal. But USA and EU do not want UNEP to be called a “specialized agency”, which in UN speak means its recommendations will have more weight, like that of the World Health Organization. This again may be an issue that will have to be resolved by the heads of government.