June 14th, 2012

It’s not all carnival in Rio

4 minute read

by Phillip Ward


My memory may be failing, but I seem to recall that the first UN conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in 1992 – which I was lucky to attend – attracted more popular attention than its follow up conference, Rio+20, which is due to start later this month.

It’s not as if the issues to be covered are any less important or urgent than they were in 1992. The fifth Global Environmental Outlook Report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) makes gloomy reading. Only four out of 90 key environmental goals show any progress and others have continued to deteriorate including damage to coral reefs, overfishing and climate change emissions. The report concludes that 40 years on from the Stockholm conference, which introduced the concept of sustainable development and created UNEP, the world is still on a completely unsustainable path.


Draft dodging

Perhaps the lack of anticipation is because the omens for Rio are not looking good; although it is fair to say that they rarely do at this stage. For those unfamiliar with UN conferences, they are strange beasts. Around 140 countries will attend; most will send heads of state or senior ministers. Nick Clegg will represent the UK. In addition there will be a myriad of non-governmental and civil society organisations playing an active role in the discussions.

Conference resolutions are meant to be thrashed out before the conference in preparatory meetings lasting weeks but do not have a binding effect on anyone – not even the UN. Resolutions are adopted by unanimity, which means that every country’s sensitivities have to be accommodated. While conference proceedings are conducted in the seven official UN languages, in practice negotiations take place conducted in a strange form of English evolved as a result of most users having English as a second language and a background in diplomacy. All of which leads to the production of long, imprecise and curiously expressed resolutions.

For Rio+20 the preparatory process is trying, and so far failing, to agree the terms of a sustainable development road map, “The Future We Want”.  The issues seem focused on the definition of a green economy but are in reality are much more familiar. The developing world (G77) remains concerned that the developed world (G8) is trying to disadvantage them by imposing restrictions that did not apply to us during our own industrial revolution. And the G8 are not prepared to provide the cash or access to intellectual property that will allow the G77 to improve the lives of their people without dire environmental consequences. It’s an argument about the distribution of global wealth.

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro

The Rio+20 Conference will be no carnival. Photo by Sergio Luiz, via Wikimedia Commons

The usual expectation is that, as the conference progresses, a text will emerge from endless late night drafting sessions. Once 120 world leaders have transported themselves to Rio they will be reluctant to leave without agreeing something. But, the risk is that any achievable agreement will be a lowest common denominator document with no real impact. How could it be other?


It’s not just the economy, stupid

So, given the truly awesome cost of organising conferences on this scale, is there really any point? It’s easy to be too cynical. Many positive things did come out of the first Rio conference. We can trace back to it much of the progress being made by larger businesses in addressing their environmental impacts and many of the initiatives being taken by local authorities in many countries and many of the environmental directives from the EU..

But what seems to be missing from this event is any attempt to engage the public in the issues and the choices to be made. It seemed different 20 years ago. Every UK newspaper sent a specialist correspondent; the BBC sent Brian Redhead and Jonathan Dimbleby. All of them filed regular copy. This raised public interest and understanding and provided some of the motivation for the actions which business and local government took when everyone packed up and went home.

This time I detect no attempt to build the public’s interest in the issues or divert them from short term economic problems, whose solution is widely held to depend on getting the unsustainable consumption-based economy back into gear. Many newspapers no longer keep environment correspondents and I expect the BBC will prioritise coverage of the Jubilee, Euro 2012 and the impending London Olympics.

The 20 year gaps between these conferences exist for good reason, but mean that missed opportunities cannot easily be recovered. The need for action is urgent. We may have left it too late to start engaging the public ahead of the conference but all those preparing for Rio, whether from government, the UN, civil society or the media, share a responsibility to achieve a coherent outcome from the conference and then engage and educate the public at large about what is at stake. More depends on it than just our economies.


Phillip Ward


Phillip Ward

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5 Comments on "It’s not all carnival in Rio"

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Phillip Ward
I hadn’t seen this post, but I am not surprised by it. Unilever has been debating sustainability at the top level since before the original Rio conference and they have a high quality team working on it now. I met an old colleague this week who had been to Rio+20 as the head of a major NGO. He rebuked me for describing the conference as a disappointment, although he agreed that the UK and EU positions had been weak. His view was that didn’t matter because the action now was with the BRICs, multinational companies and civil society organisations. Individually… Read more »
Phillip Ward
Peter In my experience a lot of what government does is synthesise the views of the mind boggling number a trade associations active in this country. They in turn are desperate to hold on to members and therefore tend to represent the lowest common denominator position. Unsurprisingly the views they put to government are often well behind the views of the leading edge companies and those views are often dominant when it comes to decisions on regulation. It is also true that Governments of all persuasions have believed for some time that SMEs are the engine for growth and equally… Read more »
Peter Jones

Hi Phillip,

It’s fascinating to hear how businesses may be starting to take the lead as resource constraints start to bite. Do you think that government reticence may come from two things – a simplistic understanding of what is “good for business” (the mantra of “red tape bad, free market good”), and an increased focus on smaller businesses, which employ so many people, are less likely to move operations to different countries, and are perhaps slower to be impacted by the resource issues that bigger companies, especially in the high tech sector see starting to loom.

Phillip Ward
PS It seems things are working out as predicted. A text has emerged from late night negotiations. Even those who are pleased with it accept that it is much weaker than they would have liked but claim that it points us in the right direction. They say that it’s worth will be revealed as the ideas are taken forward. It might be possible to buy that if the record of achievement of the previous Earth Summit commitments was more respectable. And if the need for action was not so urgent. On the positive side there have been a number of… Read more »