Rich nations backtracking as Rio Summit nears

By Martin Khor

As the Rio summit on sustainable development nears, governments have yet to agree on most issues, and rich countries are backtracking on the original principles and commitments made 20 years ago.

With only 10 days to go before the start of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, the countries are still far from agreeing on what to say in a summit declaration or plan of action.

The final meeting to prepare for the conference last week at the UN headquarters in New York made some progress, but it was not enough.

Only 70 paragraphs of a total 329 in the latest draft declaration have been agreed on. There are differing views in the rest, which have to be bridged when the delegates meet again on June 13 in Rio.

The political leaders are meeting on June 20-23 for what is dubbed as the Rio plus 20 summit, so called because it is marking the 20th anniversary of the historic Earth Summit of 1992, also held in Rio.

More than a hundred heads of state or government are expected to attend Rio + 20, making it the most important international conference this year.

It will be held amid a global financial crisis, growing unemployment and worsening environmental problems, including increasing water scarcity and floods, biodiversity loss, food insecurity and climate change.

These are all part of the crisis in sustainable development and its three dimensions – economic, social and environment.

Unfortunately, the summit comes at a time when developed and developing countries seem less and less able to reach a common understanding on key issues and principles.

Big differences have emerged on the three new issues being addressed by the conference – the concept of the green economy, how to define sustainable development goals, and what new institutional framework to create to house future activities on sustainable development.

But what is even more worrying is that the developed countries are attempting to remove or dilute the principles agreed to in Rio 20 years ago, and to backtrack on the commitments they had made to assist developing countries through finance and technology transfer in order to implement sustainable development.

Thus the North-South divide is not only over specific issues but is also at the deep level of the fundamentals that lie at the foundations of international cooperation of the past many decades.

These include the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), and the commitments on technology transfer and finance.

The CBDR was one of the Rio Principles adopted in 1992. It was agreed that all countries have a common responsibility to protect the environment, but also differentiated responsibilities because the rich countries should play the leading role, due to their greater contribution to the environmental crisis and their higher economic status.

This basic principle is under attack. In the recent negotiations, the United States has made it clear it cannot accept CBDR. Wherever the term is mentioned, it wants it deleted.

Almost all developed countries use the excuse that no single Rio principle should be singled out and a general reference to the set of Rio principles should suffice.

This is causing great concern to the developing countries, grouped in the G77 and to China. For them, the clear reaffirmation of the CBDR principle in particular, and the Rio principles in general, is the most important point that Rio + 20 must proclaim. Otherwise it would be a great retreat from the original Rio.

The second serious problem is the developed countries’ back tracking on their commitment to transfer technology to developing countries.

In the section on technology transfer in the draft declaration, the US, European Union, Canada and Australia do not even want any reference to technology transfer in the title itself.

The original title in the text by the co-chairs of the meeting is “Technology development and transfer”. The US, supported by Canada and Australia, want to delete the word “transfer” and instead change the title to “Technology development, innovation and science”.

The EU also wants a new title: “Research, Innovation and Technology Development.” This is the clearest indication of an intention to kill the concept, let alone the commitment to technology transfer.

However, there are still some negotiating days ahead, and there is a slim chance that there may be a change of heart at Rio itself.


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2 Responses to Rich nations backtracking as Rio Summit nears

  1. More voices, many more voices are needed.

    A comment for review by the Chapel Hill Planning Board and the Sustainability Committee Meeting,
    June 5, 2012

    One of the most widely appreciated definitions of sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. From my point of view, it is about saving environmental resources, setting limits on economic and population growth, providing good quality of life for all and developing a sustainable economy at the local level.

    Local governments can contribute to sustainability in many different ways. Some of the most popular activities villages, towns and cities can undertake are:
    • developing greenways
    • saving energy and using renewable energy sources
    • providing good public transport
    • recycling waste
    • educating citizens about sustainability
    • supporting diversified, small businesses
    • involving local stakeholders in policy and planning and
    • reducing CO2 emissions.
    These are “popular” activities and readily receive support. I would like to turn your attention to requirements for necessary local change that are decidedly unpopular and related to seemingly endless economic growth and unbridled increases in the human population of Chapel Hill.
    Somehow, we have to master the art of thinking globally and acting locally. If we can do this one thing, “think globally”, it becomes evident that riveting attention on more and more growth could be a grave mistake because we are denying how economic and population growth in the community in which we live cannot continue as it has until now. Each village’s resources are being dissipated, each town’s environment degraded and every city’s fitness as place for our children to inhabit is being threatened. To proclaim, as the CHN does on 5/20/12, that “the meat of Chapel Hill 2020 is, of course, growth” fails to acknowledge that the Town of Chapel Hill is already ‘built out’, and also ‘filled in’ with people. If the quality of life we enjoy now is to be maintained for the children, then limits on economic and population growth will have to be set. By so doing, we choose to “act locally” and sustainably.
    More economic and population growth are no longer sustainable in many too many places on the surface of Earth because biological constraints and physical limitations are immutably imposed upon ever increasing human consumption, production and population activities of people in many communities where most people reside worldwide. Inasmuch as the Earth is finite with frangible environs, there comes a point at which more growth is unsustainable. There is much work to done locally. But that effort cannot reasonably begin without sensibly limiting economic and population growth.
    To quote the same edition of the CHN again, “We face a wide-open opportunity to break with the old ways of doing the town’s business…..” That is a true statement. But the necessary “break with the old ways” of continuous economic and population growth is not what is occurring. There is a call for a break with the old ways, but the required changes in behavior are not what are being proposed as we plan for the future. What is being proposed and continues to occur is more of the same, old business-as-usual overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, the very distinctly human activities that appear to be growing unsustainably. More business-as-usual could soon become patently unsustainable, both locally and globally. A finite planet with the size, composition and environs of the Earth and a community with the boundaries, limited resources and wondrous climate of villages, towns and cities where we live may not be able to sustain much longer the economic and population growth that is occurring on our watch. Perhaps necessary changes away from unsustainable growth and toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises are in the offing.
    Think globally while there is still time and act locally before it is too late for human action to make any difference in the clear and presently dangerous course of unfolding human-induced ecological events, both in our planetary home and in our villages, towns and cities.
    Let me close with a comment from a June 3, 2012 CHN letter by a town neighbor, Nancy Elkins, “If ‘the meat of Chapel Hill 2020 is, of course, growth’ then we have wasted our time working on Chapel Hill 2020 during the past months. Chapel Hill 2020 must not go forward on this premise without the necessary restraints that a long-term plan must have.”
    Thank you.
    Steven Earl Salmony

  2. Steven Earl Salmony says:

    Thinking globally, acting locally and defining sustainability Â

    The Norman Transcript

    June 24, 2012

    NORMAN – Editor, The Transcript:

    My opinion is that the current global recession will not end until human societies change. Very difficult, given the nature of political systems and the human condition.

    Global human population tripled during the 20th century and is currently near 7 billion. Human population diminishes the planetary resource base, increases demand and prices, and is a cause of the present global recession. Nevertheless, global human population is presently increasing by about 80 million annually. Norman and the United States as a whole have contributed. The U.S. human population quadrupled during the 20th century and continues to increase today. Norman’s population was about 27,000 in 1950, 52,000 in 1970, 97,000 in 2000, and was 111,000 in 2010.

    None of this population increase seems enough for Chambers of Commerce in Norman, in Oklahoma, and across our land. In The Norman Transcript on June 19th, John Woods, current chair of the Norman C of C, called for us to “build a community of economic success, strong quality of life amenities that attract the next generation of young professionals and families to help fund the critical components of our city that we all care about. We need to begin a dialogue…” This letter is an effort to contribute to that dialogue. My view is that we already have the above listed attributes in Norman and that CofCs call for more growth is detrimental.

    One of our City Councilors recently said to me, “If you don’t grow, you rot.” This reminds of another local issue, NEDA, which is treated here only by implication. In my opinion, the City Councilor’s opinion is true only for cultural growth. Human numbers and society are past the point that physical growth becomes detrimental. Furthermore, all forms of physical growth are not sustainable, though often so-called. Malthus spoke more than a century ago to an imbalance between population growth and food supply, an imbalance detrimental to human welfare. Forty-five years ago, Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, and Hardin published a collection of numerous papers with dire predictions. These authors were not mistaken, but they were premature because they did not and could not anticipate effects of burgeoning technology, which has greatly facilitated extraction of resources.

    Technology does not contradict science; technology is science in application. The increased rate of resource extraction and still rising human populations are grave threats to future human welfare. But, what can we do? What should we do?

    One action that should be helpful would be for CofCs to renounce population growth as an appropriate objective and to devote their intelligence and efforts to formulation of a healthful alternate paradigm of true sustainability.

    Edwin Kessler

    Norman, Oklahoma

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