Saturday, 30 June 2012

Rio+20 – A UK Perspective


Robert Pollard




Tens of thousands of civil society groups; thousands of parliamentarians, mayors, UN officials, and business CEOs; over 180 heads of State and government, and one document which no one can agree upon. Over 55000 people have descended on Rio Di Janeiro, Brazil, to be part of the frenzy which is the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, and the outcome document which is supposed to shape our future global sustainable development strategy is contended by almost everyone involved.
Heads of state at Rio+20. Photograph: Buda Mendes/STF/LatinContent/Getty Images
There is genuine concern that the 3-day summit (or Rio+20) will actually change nothing. On-going disagreements meant the negotiating process leading up to the conference had to be extended, with the G77 developing countries walking out on discussions at one point. This was supposed to be the occasion we finally stop throwing money at socio-environmental problems, and instead develop policy to stem wastefulness and overconsumption in the west. Cameron and Obama aren’t even going. 

Many argue we are at a tipping point. More than one billion people suffer poverty, we have already transgressed 4 of the 9 planetary boundaries (environmental limits), and we face economic and social uncertainty in the wake of financial crisis and the potential collapse of the Eurozone. Thankfully, out of the 20% of the outcome document which has been officially agreed, there are a few global policy changes which look set to make it out the other side. But with western attentions seemingly passing by Rio+20 to far more pertinent, home-hitting concerns such as the Olympics and hosepipe bans, will any of this even affect the UK?

1. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The SDGs will set development goals and targets to meet today’s global challenges and could be one of the more concrete outcomes at Rio. On the surface this appears like another means of throwing money at the issues of developing nations, but in fact with this new onus on a sustainable economy, the developed world would have to fall in line too. Unsustainable consumption patterns in rich countries may have to change in order to relieve the pressures on those in poverty, and more equitable distribution of current resource stocks was considered. 

Or at least that would be the case, if it weren’t for David Cameron’s invitation to co-chair the International High-level Committee responsible for determining a post Millennium Development Goal framework. Cameron is focused on economic development for relieving poverty, and intends to stick to the target of assigning 0.7% of UK GDP as aid from 2013 onwards. Under the same rouse many corporations use to promote self-interests as genuine concern for the poor, Mr Cameron’s plans for bolstering developing economies appears as nothing more than an opportunity to extend the reach of trans-national corporation’s supply chains in the third world. 0.7% of GDP as aid remains just a public relations strategy. 

If intentions were indeed sincere, Cameron, on the way back from the economy-related G20 Summit in Mexico would have stopped in Rio and would be approaching his co-chair role entirely differently.  Sustainable Development Goals are widely referenced throughout the Outcome Document and countries are ‘firmly committed to their full and timely achievement’ and the process should be ‘coherent with and integrated into the United Nations development agenda beyond 2015’. So they will happen. Despite this all I can really take from Cameron’s typically economically-headed stance is how it will reflect on any tangible UK contribution to SDG’s, in minutia. 


The initiative would engage all sectors of society in support of three interlinked objectives to be achieved by 2030: providing universal access to modern energy services for all; doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. Again, penned as a fantastic scheme which the UK could profitably spearhead in transition to a low-carbon economy. 

Instead George Osborne chooses to snuff the opportunity by taking an openly anti-environment stance, and inadvertently discouraging green investment, and attitude which may prove detrimental.

British researchers forecast global energy demand to increase by 50% by 2030, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects an almost 50% decline in global conventional oil production by 2020, bludgeoning a hole between supply and demand.  These statistics prove not only does a pro-economy agenda not necessarily have to be anti-green, but in fact, energy efficiency, innovation and fossil-alternative fuels will soon be market essentials. 

Osborne’s careless eco malice could in reality have grave consequences on the cost of green tech borrowing. Our future national energy security will come to rely on the formation of a new energy system during the next decade. Being an economist, the Chancellor should know that renewable and clean tech investment is heavily front-loaded, after which production is low cost. Such front-loading means the initial capital price is essential, a price which is intrinsically related to political risk. Thanks Mr Osborne.

Delegates at Rio claim they are determined to act to make sustainable energy for all a reality, but only, according to the Outcome Document, if it is ‘prioritized according to their specific challenges, capacities and circumstances’. This unfortunately, is UN negotiation talk for ‘a bottom of the list agenda’. The text reflects Mr Osborne’s naivety in continuing to see environmental progress as nothing more than an externality which can be dealt with once the problems with our economy are resolved. Why, for once, can someone not step back and understand how long term returns on green investment would be integral to the stability of the economy.

3. Beyond GDP

This is the one Rio outcome which could potentially be implemented in the UK with positive effect. After the financial crisis, societal expectations are far more inclined to long-term, sustainable investments, ensuring the stability of our economy. Sustainable decision making requires knowledge of the social and environmental landscape, which requires a new, holistic metric for progress. GDP was never designed to be the globally accepted measure of prosperity, but unfortunately is the economic yardstick by which we determine countries’ development. Taking the lead on incorporating environmental and social well-being metric into national accounting could provide the UK with information invaluable to a successfully competitive country in the sustainable economy. 

Rio+20 or not, I have no doubt that indicators such as health, education, poverty gaps and the environment would be welcome additions to how we perceive success in the future, and the decision by government to enforce Main Market listed companies to report their emissions beginning 2013 is a step forward in incorporating the private sector in this adjustment. Ironically, Beyond GDP is lacking in the Outcome Document at Rio, but is remaining in the government’s crosshairs. Nick Clegg, who did attend Rio+20, shared a promising viewpoint on GDP:

“We all know that GDP is a vital measure of growth. But it can only provide a narrow snapshot of a country’s welfare and it does not account for the quality of growth – for our wellbeing, and that of the natural environment on which future prosperity depends.”

We cannot afford to continue with the short-term profit maximization ideology, nor can we let business as usual investment decisions lead us back down the road of recession. Not for the economy, not for society, and not for the environment.

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