Rio + 20

The objectives of a low-carbon future and “sustainability” go hand in hand. Reducing carbon in the atmosphere is the only way to fight climate change. With climate change under control, the world is “sustainable”, and will avoid the substantial extinction of species that could result from unchecked climate change.

The Brazilian Government is the host for RIO + 20, a world summit whose aim is to strengthen the progress towards the goal of sustainable development since the 1992 Earth Summit (also held at Rio de Janeiro). The Government is confident that the conference will leave “a legacy” for the future, as the 1992 Summit did.

The Brazilian Environmental Minister, Izabella Teixeira, and the executive secretary of the Brazilian National Commission for Rio+20, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, recently spoke to the press, setting out informally  what they think must happen for this summit to be a success.

Participation by a great majority of heads of state is a necessary first step.  Don’t count on Prime Minister Harper being there. We expect that he will designate  Peter Kent to be the Chief of Canada’s mission.

At Rio, political leaders must commit their countries to sustainable production and consumption.  The very nature of “consumption” must change, as a country’s  right to consume cannot be absolute, but ought to be limited by an international obligation to other countries that could be affected. Just as important, the private sector must also be responsible for acheiving sustainable development, which would be encouraged by adoption of “a business platform that will engage in a commitment to the green economy.”

One issue on which Rio + 20 delegates will probably disagree is a proposal to create a new U.N. environmental agency. Figueiredo said Brazil supports strengthening the existing U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).  “UNEP should be strengthened as an environmental pillar, because in its present condition it is incapable of adequately carrying out its task,” he said.

On this and other issues, Brazilian environmental organisations are at odds with their government. The deputy executive secretary of the Socio-Environmental Institute, Adriana Ramos, does not  think that strengthening the UNEP is sufficient. Instead she proposes the creation of a new environmental governance structure within the U.N. “to guarantee fulfilment of environmental accords.”

Environmental organisations are also disappointed with what they see as a lack of leadership on the part of the Brazilian government.  They are critical of the generally abstract tone of the Rio document negotiated so far between U.N. member states. “It is hard to envisage that the conference could succeed, because there are in fact no concrete proposals in the official document to generate commitment”, Ramos said.

Ramos referred to the need to reduce greenhouse gases in accordance with the Kyoto Convention.  Ramos recognized that it will be hard to meet reduction targets. Like Canada with its tar sands, Brazil intends to exploit major oil reserves recently discovered in undersea deposits off the Atlantic coast.

Is Durban a precedent for an international summit (Rio + 20) that may not achieve anything concrete?  Or, like Durban, is the potential failure of Rio + 20 a necessary milestone on a very long journey?