Forecast gloomy for yet another climate talkfest
The Green Games … part of the UN Rio+20 environmental summit. Photo: AFP
On what was supposed to be the final morning of the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change I came as close as I ever have in my adult life to hitting someone.
The leaders of the world remained locked in a room, my deadline was approaching, there was a large blank space on the front page of the paper and it was almost impossible to figure out what was going on. In the distance I spied someone who would be able to tell me.
But as I tried to fight through the huge crowd a man wearing a woolly jumper and bearing pamphlets barred my way to insist I attend some kind of irrelevant greenie side event. And with my source disappearing into the melee, he wouldn’t let me past.
In the end I managed to get around him without resorting to violence, and my source revealed that the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, had not showed up for the talks even though he was already in the building, which told me all I really needed to know.
But after Copenhagen I was not the only one wondering about the value of such environmental mega conferences.
The first one I attended was the original Rio de Janiero ”earth summit” 20 years ago, which at the time seemed to achieve only a watered-down set of outcomes.
But now that meeting – held in the optimistic glow after the fall of the Iron Curtain – is judged to have been a reasonable success. It did at least reach agreement on three legally binding global treaties – on climate change, biodiversity and desertification – and on an international ”agenda” for sustainable development.
Global environmental problems have become worse. In the latest edition of Nature, a group of leading scientists argue that by the end of the century we may be approaching a global ecological tipping point marked by extinctions and rapid changes in ecosystems.
But at least in 1992 the leaders of the world were able to agree on what they aspired to do, even if they subsequently failed to achieve it.
When even more world leaders – about 120 at last count, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, among them – return to Rio next week – it is in an age of global economic crisis and weariness with environmental talkfests. The highest hopes are that the leaders will agree to negotiate some new non-binding agreements in coming years. And even those underwhelming aspirations may be dashed.
Australia, for example, is keen for countries to finally agree on the start of a new negotiation on rules for the use of deep oceans outside countries’ 200 kilometre territorial zones. But a line-up of nations keen to protect their fishing and whaling (Canada, the United States, Japan, Russia and Iceland) are not too keen on that plan.
The meeting will seek to agree to start talks on a set of ”sustainable development goals” – targets for rich and poor countries alike to take effect in 2015 when the ”millennium goals” reach their expiry date.
Sustainable development goals sound pretty waffly, but the millennium goals were at least useful in holding governments to account for things like promised levels of spending on overseas aid, and sustainable development goals could serve a similar purpose.
But even an agreement to try to reach an agreement on such goals could founder on the perennial north south divide.
According to The Hindu newspaper the Indian government’s strategy for the Rio summit is to ”prevent any attempt to pin down specific goals or targets regarding sustainable development”. India will even oppose a decision on what ”themes” any goals might cover.
At the first Rio meeting, the gap between developed and developing countries was recognised in the climate change convention, which effectively promised that rich countries would act first, and when poor countries did do something, the rich countries would pay. It’s a principle that gridlocked climate talks for decades, and to which the developing world remains wedded, despite the huge geopolitical shifts over the past two decades. And at this meeting the developing countries will also have the weight of numbers. George Bush snr attended last time, but President Obama is sending the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Deeply mired in Europe’s financial woes, neither the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, nor the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is going either. But the leaders of India, Russia, China and of course host nation Brazil will be there.
Multilateral decision-making is foundering in a time of geo-political change, as the US retreats from its leadership role and China refuses to take any lead.
In such a situation grand, legally binding deals become impossible. Messy ”bottom up” pacts on goals or targets or unilateral pledges that taken together might add up to something are the best negotiators can hope for, and even they are difficult to achieve.
Which might be why another objective of the Rio summit is to reform the bodies through which the United Nations makes decisions on the environment, institutions which are weak, in part because they require 100 per cent consensus to agree on anything.
Rio+20 is shaping as the same crazy mix as the first meeting, UN delegates and national negotiators rubbing shoulders with Amazonian Indians bearing blowpipes, environmentalists staging television stunts with polar bears and melting ice sculptures, endless motorcades bearing national leaders, the Rainbow Warrior in the harbour, and a blanket presence of the Brazilian army on the streets.
The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, is talking down expectations while still trying to sound positive.
”Even now there is more disagreement than agreement on the details of the so-called ‘outcome document’ that will emerge,” he concedes. ”Yet that will not be the defining measure. Far more important is what the Rio conference has already accomplished. And that is to build a global movement for change. Rio+20 is a milestone on a long road.”
Which is a nice way of saying the final document the conference is supposed to produce has a name, ”The Future We Want”, but no agreed content. Surely the future we want is not one of endless low-achieving environmental meetings.
But the alternative is for world leaders to do nothing as sustainable development becomes a more elusive goal, and that could be even worse.