Politicians can’t save the environment

Rio de Janiero, Brazil
Politicians can’t save the environment

"This is no way to run a planet," wrote Todd Stern, American chief negotiator on climate change in a letter to former President George W. Bush in 2007, and stressed that just like you can’t run a company through large plenary sessions with shareholders, you can’t solve global challenges by inviting roughly 200 countries to conferences with extensive agendas. But that’s exactly what’s happening in Rio at the moment.

The Rio+20 conference marks the 20 years anniversary of the first Earth Summit on Sustainable Development held in Rio in 1992. The summit attracted momentous media attention and resulted in a number of international conventions on sustainability, biodiversity and climate. But what has happened with these objectives? According to the newly published UN-report, Global Environment Outlook, there has been progress in only a handful of nearly 90 indicators. Access to clean water has improved, investments in renewable energy have increased and the ozone layer getting better – but then the stream of good news stops. On almost all other areas the picture look bleak. CO2 has risen by 40%, biodiversity in the tropics has decreased by 30%, etc.

Stronger UN agencies have a long way to go

After the last three disappointing climate summits in Durban, Cancun and Copenhagen, the expectations this year are at historic lows. At the final press briefing late Monday, the Brazilian hosts – on the question on strengthening the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) – provided only vague statements, and with an any-agreement-is-better-than-no-agreement approach taken by the Brazilian hosts, any substantial outcome seems highly unlikely.

The question of strengthening the UNEP is important as they could provide a control mechanism and could close the gap between policy goals and actual implementation. Currently there doesn’t exist any agency to hold countries accountable to their promises, and the results are consequently disappointing. This vacuum in the political architecture gained renewed relevance prior to Rio+20, and to address this problem, several scientists, countries, and NGOs have pushed for the creation of new bodies such an UN Environmental Security Council or an Ombudsman for future generations. However, these ideas have long prospects. At a meeting at Copenhagen University earlier this month, President of the European Union Council of Ministers and Denmark’s minister for Development Cooperation Christian Friis Bach assessed that the most likely outcome of the Rio+20 is the creation of a special UN reporteur to assess countries' progress. More or less what is already being done today.

At the same meeting at the Copenhagen University, John Kornerup Bang, climate chief adviser at the global shipping company AP Moller Maersk, attended and neatly hit the nail on the head: "The biggest challenge is not lack of technical solutions or lack of knowledge about the situation. The biggest challenge is the ability of countries to reach agreement," said Kornerup Bang, stressing the need for the companies to take initiatives themselves.

A company that has done just that is Microsoft. From July 1, Microsoft will start to tax itself. For every ton of CO2 that the main global offices and data centers produce, they must pay a tax that will be used to buy CO2 certificates, which will make Microsoft CO2 neutral. As Microsoft's climate chief Rob Bernard, says: "While governments have an important role to play, we hope that there is an advantage to move faster than them."

New networks set the agenda

As an example of UN goals increasingly being implemented by companies, not governments can be seen in the growing support for the UN Global Compact. Almost 7000 companies have now signed up for the UN Global Compact, which commits companies in areas such as human rights, anti-corruption and environment, but perhaps most importantly, voluntary commitment to action.

In 2009 the shipping company Maersk signed up for the initiative and is now trying to go a step further. "We have taken matters into our own hands and started to work on a cradle-to-cradle principle, where the input factors such as aluminum and plastics should be recycled," says Kornerup Bang. "We have recently just ordered some new containers that are both lighter and it will be possible to recycle 90% of the materials."

Jacob Torfing, Professor of Network Management at Roskilde University recognizes the trend and emphasizes that decision making processes in the international community are not as flexible as the changing demands and challenges: "The problem facing the planet, is that there is no global governance. The current UN system reflects the world anno 1945, and it is simply not geared for consensus-based and fast decisions." Torfing also believes that new global problem-oriented networks are beginning to bypass governments. These networks have grown exponentially in recent years and, unlike the UN system, it is communities where the participating parties to a larger extent oblige each other to action. An example of this is the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group where some of the world’s largest cities have come together to exchange experiences and solutions to the climate problems.

Gravel in the machinery: only small policy steps

The negotiations preceding Rio+20 have been more than two years in the making.  While the negotiating text has moved from a maximum of 6000 pages for the current 50 pages, there's still a long way to a clear and focused document. The pace of negotiations has been criticized by both Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, and Sha Zukang, the Secretary General of the Conference on Sustainable Development, which organizes the Rio+20. Both have also stressed that the length of the document is still too long.

However, if the final document decreases in size, it is more likely to be a consequence of lack of agreement rather than consensus. Fundamental disagreements between China, USA and Europe, and between developing countries and industrialized countries, have the potential to keep the chief negotiators up late before an agreement can be presented on the 22 June.

One of the big obstacles on the road is how the current political system should be reformed so that it best supports sustainable development. According to observers, the most likely outcome right now is a slight strengthening of the UN Environment Program, also a statement against subsidies for fossil fuels and the establishment of a global sustainability council with associated sustainability goals. As well as these outcomes, a large number of more network-specific initiatives will be launched in Rio, such as the Natural Capital Declaration, which requires financial institutions to incorporate natural resources into their reporting of services and products.

The idea receiving the most attention is the sustainability goals – the so-called Sustainable Development Goals. The idea is based on the experiences from the UN Millennium Development Goals that world governments agreed on in 2000, and demonstrated that the world community can actually set goals and reach many of them. Among the proposed Sustainable Development Goals are targets on food security, access to water and sustainable production and consumption models. What the specific outcome of the negotiations will be is still uncertain, but according to Troels Dam Christensen, coordinator of the Danish 92-group (an association of 22 Danish environmental and developmental NGOs), and participator at Rio+20, the idea may very well gain momentum at Rio+20.

"Global sustainability is included at this stage in the negotiating text, but the content is still unknown. It is crucial that the focus of the targets does not get too narrow, and that it actually leads to sustainable solutions," says Dam Christensen and stresses that a first step should be to abolish the international subsidies to fossil fuels. And that's not small change. According to the International Energy Agency, global subsidies will amount to more than $600 billion in 2012.

Since G20 leaders in 2009 called for the elimination of subsidies, more countries have followed suit. Rio+20 provides the ideal framework for such an international declaration. Troels Dam Christensen says: "I think an agreement on terminating subsidies to fossil subsidies can be reached, but the question is whether we can agree on concrete action. The important thing is of course that it is not just empty words. Ultimately it's about doing everything that works in the transformation towards a green economy."

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