Last month, the world was abuzz with expectations from Rio +20. This column too saw its fair share of speculation and discussion on the subject. Throughout the world, environmentalists were again daring to hope for a fresh lease of life for sustainable movement. Leaders flew into Rio along with a host of representatives for NGOs, and the private sector. The buzz was present, the agenda ripe and no one could deny the urgency required. But what came of it was disappointment, yet again.
The post Conference press release quotes Ban Ki-moon saying, “Rio+20 has affirmed fundamental principles – renewed essential commitments – and given us new direction.” Contrary to what the Secretary-General will have you believe, this is far from the truth. The leaders did not come up with any substantial agreement at the end of the conference. Instead what we have is a toothless voluntary working paper named ‘The Future We Want’ which is non-binding, at best ornamental. It merely reaffirms already existent commitments and documents for the most part.
If you recall last month’s discussion, two familiar outcomes were clearly present throughout the conference– the rhetoric and the eventual fizzle-out. Several promises and (voluntary) commitments have been made of course, but looking at them, one cannot help wonder how realistic they are. Take for instance the ‘Sustainable Energy for All’ initiative which hopes to double energy efficiency as well as the share of renewable energy by 2030. Do these deadlines really mean anything anymore? So many deadlines have come and gone without an iota of accomplishment in sight. They work as fast relief painkillers, making us forget the pain for the moment but never really curing the problem. Along with the deadlines come the financial commitments and the ‘promise’ of planning and programmes.
What is perhaps even more exasperating are the open ended commitments cleverly disguised by rhetoric, which are nothing but empty promises and the substitution of effort, real commitment and planning with cold guilt relieving cash. An example is the $175 billion pledged to supporting sustainable transport in developing countries by 2020. On paper this looks impressive, but if the money is not put to good use, and without further planning on its distribution or of its expenditure or, perhaps most importantly, the accountability once it reaches developing countries, then this is nothing but a hand out that serves zero environmental purpose.
Countries do tend to use monetary pledges as a way of showing they care while the blatant hypocrisy in the background proves otherwise. The UK’s pledge to contribute $234 million to small holder farmers is one such instance. The pledge is seen as a generous and clever contribution to the Zero Hunger Challenge initiative, but the UK’s small farmers are themselves plagued by economic hardship and the threat of supermarkets. In light of that, can the UK really be serious about small farmers in other countries, or is this again a show of money temporarily absolving them of more concrete commitment? Not that the money is not welcome, but developed countries need to do so much more. In case of food and agriculture, for example, a strong commitment for the transfer of technology and know-how would be more valuable and long term than just money.
The biggest failure for Rio +20, however, has been the non-binding nature of the final document. In international law terms, this makes the document useful only for lighting bonfires. The conference has been a waste of time and effort and yet again a disappointment for those who really care, while the people making the decisions go away with a fall sense of achievement.