Rio: not plus or minus, just 20

The Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development is over. The conference declaration, titled “The Future We Want”, is a weak and meaningless document. It aims at the lowest common denominator consensus to say it all, but to say nothing consequential about how the world will move ahead to deal with the interlinked crises of economy and ecology. Is this the future we want or the future we dread?

The final document is being touted as a victory for the developing world, in particular, for India, because it reiterates the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. This guiding principle, hammered out following much acrimony in 1992, establishes the differentiation of action of different parts of the world. It is clearly not negotiable. So in that respect, Rio 2012 is a move ahead. But is this enough?

We need to ask why things have come to such a pass that 20 years later all that the world is doing is to reaffirm principles that cannot and should not be rewritten. Why does the world, confronted with the dangers of climate change, destruction of the high seas and the need to reinvent growth so that it is green and inclusive, do nothing more than mouth platitudes about change? Why is the world not willing to act?

The fact is that Rio+20 has come at a bad time. Europe, the environmental missionary, is preoccupied with domestic financial concerns. The Eurozone is in danger of collapse and governments now say that austerity and no-growth may not be the way to the future. They are seeking a new term of industrialisation in the face of crippling unemployment. In the US, things are not very different. The Barack Obama government is facing an election year and economy is its paramount concern. It has no time for global environmental issues. Obama, who was elected on the promise of change, is shy of even mentioning the word climate.

More importantly, the US wants to dismantle the framework that puts it under pressure to act and contribute more to reduce the global environmental burden. In the US view the principle of equity in global negotiations is an albatross that gives advantage to countries like China and India. It wants none of this. It wants to rewrite the global agreement on this. It worked hard to do this in climate negotiations. Rio+20 was its chance to get rid of the principle of differentiation from where it was first inscribed. It tried and, thankfully, failed.

But as a result every other agenda at Rio+20 was a victim of the first. The second key aim was to establish the concept of green economy and to use sustainable development goals—not unlike Millennium Development Goals—to measure performance against green targets. This agenda was soon lost to geopolitical tectonic shifts, where the rich world is declining and the poor world is ascending. The very idea of green economy was viewed as a new form of green protectionism and conditionality that would hinder growth. In the final Rio+20 decision, the agenda has been tied up in convoluted wordings that will make progress difficult.

It is also important to note that the agenda of green economy was floated without an agreement on its definition. Industrialised countries look at environmental action as divorced from concerns of development and social well-being. They see environmental measures as the icing on the cake of development, already done and delivered. This icing helps improve performance through efficiency and cleaning up of pollution. Developing and emerging countries do not have this luxury. They need growth, and if they accept that growth must be equitable and sustainable, their approach to a green economy will be different. This is the challenge that Rio+20 should have faced squarely.

In this way, Rio+20 was the opportunity to tackle what is clearly the most intractable and most obvious of all issues confronting the world: the current economic growth paradigm that is consumption-led and is gobbling its way through banks and the Planet. It is now well understood that the world is staring at financial recession on the one hand and environmental catastrophe on the other. It is also increasingly understood that the consumption patterns and lifestyle of the already-rich cannot be afforded by all. So what is the way ahead? How can the world move towards sustainable production and sustainable consumption while ensuring growth for all? Rio+20 should have focused on sustainable development goals to achieve such growth. In addition, it should have focused on new robust measurement tools to track progress in well-being, the GDP-plus economy.

Instead, in my view, Rio+20 became the battleground for what can only be considered an illegitimate fight. And if Rio+20 is a failure because of non-action, then it is a failure of global leadership that allowed the US and its cronies to try fiddling with the principle of equity. This deepened the distrust that destroys cooperative action.

I returned to Rio after 20 years to better understand developments crucial for the future of the world. I came back saddened by realisation that all these years, people have grown up but our leaders are still in kindergarten.