Rio+20: 20 years of standing still

Rio+20 has come and gone. It ended in the traditional fashion for UN environmental summits with the nations of the world agreeing that, at least in principle, it would be preferable to prevent wide-scale degradation of the planet’s natural systems. Furthermore world leaders have agreed that action should be taken, at some unspecified point in the future preferably when someone else is in charge.

Such conclusions might be tolerable if they were not the norm. If they only happened every once in a while and afterwards there existed some amount of follow through. Then the outcome of Rio+20 might not have had to been seen as a failure.

But enough is enough.

Eventually something more than an agreement to agree to do something at some point in the future becomes necessary. Eventually some form of action is required. Unfortunately we have been waiting for that action for 20 years ever since the original Rio earth summit in 1992.

As George Monbiot elegantly puts it:

190 governments have spent 20 years bracing themselves to “acknowledge”, “recognise” and express “deep concern” about the world’s environmental crises, but not to do anything about them.

Perhaps more distressing is the fact that UN officials are almost required to make positive statements after these summits as long as the nations of the world have agreed to something, anything.

For example Ban Ki Moon the UN Secretary-General stated that Rio+20 provides a “firm foundation for social, economic and environmental well-being.” and that it “has affirmed fundamental principles, renewed essential commitments and given us new direction”.

I am sorry but that doesn’t describe what happened at Rio+20. Not in the slightest.

Why can’t UN officials and government officials simply be honest and say something along the lines of “We didn’t accomplish much at Rio+20 because the nations participating in the summit could not overcome their differences and work together towards solutions to the most pressing issues facing humanity.This is a potentially catastrophic problem”.

Instead everyone gets an undeserved pat on the back. Surely this is not helpful. In most situations when you fail as badly and repeatedly as those involved in these UN summits have failed, you are not given a pat on the back and congratulated on a job well done. You are, instead, told that you failed and that if you do not turn things around soon you can pack your bags and leave.

This attitude is long overdue at these UN summits.

Given the long string of failures that have become the norm at UN environmental summits the obvious question is why are they failing? Why, when the evidence that we are heading down the wrong path is so overwhelming, can’t we change directions?

The reasons are many, no doubt, but I think one of they key issues preventing progress is the tendency to throw as many tangentially related issues under the sustainability umbrella. Things like reproductive rights and empowerment for women, the elimination of poverty across the third world, increasing social justice are all worthwhile and important goals, but given that the much more defined problems of reducing GHG emissions and stemming the loss of biodiversity are still unsolved it seems counter-productive to insist that everything but the kitchen sink be included under the umbrella of sustainability.

Certainly it is important to ensure that any solutions to the core sustainability issues don’t make other important issues more difficult to solve but given the complexities of just the core sustainability issues I think we need to accept that we might be unable to solve all the problems facing humanity in one fell swoop. Because as long as everyone with a worthwhile cause attaches themselves to the UN process, we will be stuck with the lowest common denominator and frankly that simply isn’t enough.

What the UN process needs is focus, a smaller set clearly defined goals and some agreement on how to achieve them. In addition the UN needs to asses these summits honestly, if they produce a lacklustre result like Rio+20 has then the Secretary General of the UN should stand up and say so, bluntly and honestly.

Because if we want to protect the natural systems on which human civilization depends we desperately need to do better.


  1. As I mentioned briefly on that Monbiot thread, I think there is a possible reason for remaining (artificially) positive about the UN process. Think about what happens in 5, 10 maybe 20 years time when the direct experience of climate change becomes so obvious that only the most desperate can continue to deny reality - if we have an international process already in place to build on then the response may be quicker than if we have to start again from scratch.

    As to the widening of the scope, on balance I lean in the other direction from you. We have to weigh the benefits of short term, quick fix measures to tackle the most obviously unsustainable aspects of the global system and longer term goals of achieving a genuinely sustainable scoiety. I'm a fan of Kate Raworth's doughnut. I think it provides a good way of visualising both the short and long term priorities and also enourages us to think about the interconnections. Gender inequality for example may seem only remotely connected to climate change, but control over reproduction, and hence population growth, and empowerment to build sustainable local practices are relevant.

  2. I am actually terrified of waiting until the effects of climate change become so obvious that everyone demands action for two reasons.

    The first is that simply the lag in the climate system. If today we all agree that climate change is a problem and tomorrow (literately) we stop all emissions (obviously impossible) the climate will continue to get worse for many decades. It wont be until around 2050 before the climate stabilizes under this unreasonable best case scenario. Arguably this situation could be ameliorated somewhat with geo-engineering but that option brings with it a whole host of other problems.

    The second issue is that honestly speaking climate disasters aren't that scary. Hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, massive heat-waves are all very worrying, but that is weather. Climate disasters on the other hand only become visible when you crunch the numbers and do some fancy statistics. Sure the effects of climate disasters are huge but the average person wont understand the statistics and thus wont think in terms of climate.

    I don't want to think about what it will take until things get so bad that climate disasters become blindingly obvious to everyone.

    But back to your main point, having an international process already in place is only useful if that process is one that can achieve results. As it stands now I am not sure what we have is capable.

  3. While I share the overall vision put forth by the doughnut I am not convinced that lumping that many different issues under one umbrella would be useful.

    Take your example of reproductive freedom. This is something that I fully support and that does have climate/sustainability implications. But it is also very controversial amongst some groups. Lumping reproductive freedom with GHG reductions, for example, could force the Vatican, again for example, to become opposed thus bogging down the whole summit. And that is just one issue, there are countless more. Many even more complicated.

    Why not work the issues independently? That way conflict over one issue doesn't prevent progress on another.

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