Almost a third of the world’s government leaders didn’t bother to turn up to this month’s Rio de Janeiro UN summit, among them Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron.
Those who did attend added nothing to what their underlings had already nutted out in lengthy negotiations – which was precious little.
“I think this process is totally broken,” writes Melinda Kimble, the UN Foundation’s senior vice president, who as a US State Department negotiator helped forge the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
In all, more than 50,000 policymakers, environmentalists and business leaders from around the world gathered in Rio for the conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the celebrated 1990s “Earth Summit”. The cost ran to tens of millions of dollars.
(As it happens, “Rio + 20” also marked the 40th anniversary of the world’s first global environmental conference – held in Stockholm and boycotted by the Soviet bloc because the organisers wouldn’t admit East Germany as a country.)
The 1992 meeting was attended by 17,000 people. It introduced the concept of sustainable development and made climate change a standing issue on the world’s agenda.
No such landmark will accrue to its successor.
A Pew Group manager who attended the latest event describes it as “a 12-ring circus.”
The politest thing commentators are now saying about the Rio +20 forum is “inconsequential” – a sad verdict on a 10-day frolic that included 130 presidents and prime ministers for its final hours.
Fittingly, the meeting’s end was heralded by a violent thunderstorm during which a handful of leaders were still delivering ceremonial addresses in a large, empty hall.
Notably, “re-affirm” is used 59 times in the 49-page communique entitled “The Future We Want.”
“Governments re-affirm the need to achieve sustainable development (but not mandating how); re-affirm commitment to strengthening international cooperation (just not right now); and re-affirm the need to achieve economic stability (with no new funding for the poorest nations).”
This is a “Washington Post” summary.
Another critic comments that the communique contains a lot of “we encourage” and “we urge” but very little “we will.”
Perhaps the lamest statement from the event came from the British deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who blamed China and other developing countries, that have huge reserves of coal and want to continue using fossil fuels to grow, for failing to back European plans for a green economic revolution.
And perhaps the most relevant thing announced during the summit was the fact that global carbon emissions have risen 48 percent since 1992.
In this context, the most interesting statistic around at the moment is one that, on the coverage I have read, did not seem to get a mention at Rio: the planet’s middle class population in Asia is about to overtake Europe’s and by 2030 there will be 3.2 billion more people in the middle class than today.
These stats provide all you need to know about the direction of energy demand, I suggest. They probably say all that needs to be said about the direction of emissions, too.
Rather tellingly in the present economic environment, the new Rio declaration does not canvass earlier UN summit proposals for governments of wealthy countries to provide $30bn annually from next year to developing nations.
Domestically, no further pressure on Wayne Swan’s “desperately seeking surplus” budget, then.
Julia Gillard should be asked to explain what she was doing there, given the issues requiring attention back home, but the media won’t do that.
She is hardly in a position to admit that some of her minders had thought it a good idea to wave a green flag on the eve of C-day – how could she and they have known that the refugee boats issue would blow up on her government while she was away?
So she’s now assuring the nation that an agreement to pursue sustainable development goals is “progress” even though, after 20 years of debate since the original Rio conference, there is still no meaningful plan to address global carbon emissions.
Trying, like Gillard, to be positive, the Swiss delegation notes that the Rio resolution marks the introduction of a “green economy” on the global policy agenda and identifies it as a “key tool” for living sustainably.
Gillard, the Swiss and other leaders have endorsed a “universal shift to a green economy” as a priority – defined, I kid you not, as “creating well-being and jobs without damaging ecosystems.”
Never mind that this doesn’t fit with what the International Energy Agency says will be the global energy supply situation 25 years from now – and which is not the Gillard government’s plan for 25 years from now either.
In 2035, on her own agencies’ modelling, three-quarters of Australian electricity will still come from fossil fuels.
Globally, these fuels will account for more than half of power generation with an ongoing significant contribution from nuclear – which the Gillard government will not countenance here even though it is happy to sell uranium overseas.
The fact is that nothing coming out of Rio suggests policymakers have their heads around the dimensions of the energy/environment issue beyond mouthing rhetoric.
This drew scathing criticism from Canadian Maurice Strong, a wily bureaucrat, now 82, whom I had the chance to watch in action over a number of years when he ran Ontario Hydro between UN gigs.
He was director of the original Rio summit and has been described as global environmentalism’s patron saint.
Strong apparently told a private, wind-up dinner in Rio that the statement Gillard finds so encouraging is “a weak collection of pious generalities.”
One such is an agreement to bring together companies and countries to provide modern energy by 2030 to the 1.3 billion people who currently lack it, while doubling both the proportion of the world’s supplies gained from renewables and the worldwide rate of improvement in energy efficiency.
No-one could deny the need to provide these people with energy.
Talk, however, is cheap. Talk won’t give poor people light, comfort and a medium for cooking other than twigs and cattle dung.
The UN is good at talk.
In contrast to the politicians, much-reviled big business, needing to build its societal credentials, is acting as well as talking about sustainability.
Analysts are observing this weekend that, while government negotiators spent the run-up to the Rio+20 summit “haggling over a dwindling pool of traditional aid,” the private sector is focussed on the need to scale up investment in energy to about $US1.8 trillion annually during this decade – from about $US1.25 trillion today – with more than half being spent on cleaner and accessible energy.
For example, French utility company GDF Suez, which now owns brown coal generation here, says it will invest in 50 energy projects in developing countries by 2020 and boost its own installed capacity in renewable energy by 50 percent by 2015.
The Economist in London was moved to ask at the week’s end, viewing the wreckage in Rio, whether companies can succeed where governments have failed in protecting the environment?
The Rio communique could only bring itself to say: “We acknowledge the importance of corporate sustainability reporting and encourage companies, where appropriate, especially publicly listed and large companies, to consider integrating sustainability information into their reporting cycle.”
Perhaps the last word should go to Jean-Pierre Lehmann, retiring director of a think tank dedicated to free trade and sustainable global growth, the Evian Group, who says that these big gatherings have lost credibility and purpose. ”In fact they could do more harm than good because they cost a lot and raise public cynicism without actually achieving anything.”