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Rio+20: No closer to a safer global environment


The Rio+20 Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has brought the world no closer to a safer global environment. Indeed, if the measure of its success is that the large and influential countries stood still while the dreadful effects of climate change sped along, the conference was a disappointment.
Heads of government, who bothered to turn up for the summit meeting, could do little to alter the ‘outcome document’ that had been laboriously negotiated by their officials over weeks of painful talks that sometimes threatened to reverse the fundamental principles that were agreed 20 years ago at the first Earth Summit in Rio.

Such heads of government, who could have made a difference, were not there. They included Barack Obama of the US, Stephen Harper of Canada, Angela Merkel of Germany and David Cameron of the UK. Their four countries are among the top ten polluters in the world, and an enlightened approach by them could have made a difference.

As it turned out, the conference did absolutely nothing to help small island states, such as those in the Caribbean, and developing countries with low coastal areas, such as Guyana and Belize.

The ‘outcome document’ was made public in Rio on the day before the summit began. In its effort to include language that addresses the concerns of governments, rich and poor, small island states and land-locked countries, as well as non-governmental environmental organizations, the ‘outcome document’ is 283-paragraphs long and repetitive in many places. But, it is not a document that moves the world forward. The most that can be said of it is that it averts the fears, expressed during the negotiations, that the fundamental principles agreed at Rio in 1992 would be reversed.

At paragraph 15, it states: “We reaffirm all the principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, including, inter alia, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, as set out in Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration”. This is an important reaffirmation, because the original Rio undertaking recognized that while all countries have common responsibilities for protecting the environment, rich countries (among the biggest polluters) also have a responsibility to provide the resources, both financial and technological, to help poorer countries. Some developed countries wanted to change that language to make it conditional; the fact that the language has remained in place at least gives developing countries a basis for insisting that the big polluters stick to their commitment.

For small island states and developing countries with low-lying coastal areas, the specific paragraph on sea level rise is extremely disappointing. Paragraph 165 of the ‘outcome document’ merely “noted” that sea level rise and coastal erosion are serious threats for many coastal regions and islands particularly in developing countries. All that it then did was to call on the international community “to enhance its efforts to address these challenges”. No specific actions are proposed and no specific measures are adopted.

Reflecting the fact that the developed countries and the large developing ones, such as China and India, are now more concerned about the risks to their economies posed by the Eurozone debt crisis, no new monies were pledged for combating climate change and global warming. Instead, the ‘outcome document’ appears to have postponed the entire issue by agreeing “to establish an intergovernmental process under the United Nations General Assembly” that will “assess financing needs, consider the effectiveness, consistency and synergies of existing instruments and frameworks, and evaluate additional initiatives, with a view to prepare a report proposing options on an effective sustainable development financing strategy to facilitate the mobilization of resources and their effective use in achieving sustainable development objectives”.

That long process is to be undertaken by a group of experts who will report to the UN in 2014.

Time, meanwhile, is running out. In a paper to be published shortly in the Journal of Developing Studies, on “Climate Change and the Future of Caribbean Development”, Matthew Bishop and Anthony Payne point out that small states are the least contributors to pollution and that they need help not with mitigation (reduction of domestic emissions) but with adaptation (establishing policies and infrastructure to cope with the effects of climate change). But such limited sums as have been made available are open to all developing countries. Small island developing countries “have limited advocacy capacity to help them gain a slice of what is still a relatively meagre pie; there is no mechanism in place to ascertain which states are most in need of adaptation finance; and the vast majority of the money (all but approximately US$250 million) is being channelled through either the World Bank or Western NGOs and donor agencies, rather than the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), itself ‘the most appropriate institution to make this and other key decisions about adaptation financing’.

Of the Caribbean islands, Barbados has invested resources and is ‘one of the few countries in the Western Hemisphere to develop and implement a national policy for sustainable development’. But, for all Caribbean countries, however good their national programmes, a regional response is necessary through empowered joint machinery to negotiate financing for the region. As Bishop and Payne put it: “If Caribbean states and societies can develop a range of original and compelling approaches to the issue (as, in some respects, they have been seeking to do both individually and collectively), they may be able to help shift the nature of those structures a little further in the direction of a creative response”.

Rio+20 was not a turning point for a better future for the planet. But, at least, it was not a turning back. The Caribbean should now take advantage of the continued stated commitment to sustainable development (meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs) to ensure that, collectively, it gains access to the funding for adaptation it urgently needs. No one country can do it alone.


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