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Green economy as platitude

At Rio+20,the developing world reclaimed lost ground,but nobody committed to credible action

Written by Shyam Saran |
June 26, 2012 3:40:25 am

At Rio+20,the developing world reclaimed lost ground,but nobody committed to credible action

A major feature of the “The Future We Want” final declaration adopted by the the Rio+20 Summit on June 23 is its sheer size (283 paragraphs,49 pages) and verbal dexterity. In plotting and leading this exercise,the Brazilian hosts succeeded in putting forth a declaration in which virtually every country or grouping can find its favourite shibboleth. Every dissenting voice finds reflection in an appropriate conditioning clause. The result is a textual assault with little by way of substance or commitment to credible action. Planet Earth will remain under as much threat of irreversible ecological damage as it did after the climate change conference at Durban in November last year. The spirit and drama of the first Earth Summit 20 years ago is notably absent .

At the Durban climate change conference,the developing world had lost,for all practical purposes,its battle to retain some of the elemental principles that had emerged from Rio in 1992. These included the well known CBDR principle — Common but Differentiated Responsibility and Respective Capabilities — and the recognition of the over-riding priority of poverty eradication and economic and social development in developing countries. Underlying these principles is the notion of equity as the foundation of multilateral regimes. It is these elements that were eroded in the Durban outcome documents,with its emphasis on the “common” at the cost of “differentiated” action. What the Rio+20 document has achieved,at least rhetorically,is the reaffirmation of the Rio principles,reclaiming some of the ground the developing world had carelessly yielded at Durban. This is a modest achievement but could prove useful if and when the nuts-and-bolts negotiations on sustainable development eventually take place. These will become likely only when the ongoing global financial and economic crisis begins to recede and significant recovery manifests itself.

The theme of the Rio+20 Summit was “green economy” and the related concept of sustainable development. These terms have been difficult to define. The developed,industrialised countries have pressed for a set of common and universally applicable norms,underplaying the differing national circumstances and capacities among countries and with little or no regard for the principle of equity. They have also sought to delink the pursuit of these goals from their own legal commitment to extend financial resources to developing countries to enable action by the latter. In this respect,they were unable to press the advantage they had gained at Durban.

The concept of sustainable development will define “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs),which are likely to supplant the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2000. Rio+20 has recommended that the UN General Assembly set up a Committee of Thirty,nominated by member-states,to prepare a roadmap for the SDGs,which could be adopted in 2013. The concept of “green economy” has been left to various countries to elaborate and pursue as part of their sustainable development strategies.

There is acknowledgement that financial and technological resources are required to enable developing counties to pursue sustainable development and “green economy”,but no commitments have been made. However,the declaration envisages an inter-governmental committee,again of 30 members,that will advise the UN General Assembly on ways to mobilise resources for this purpose.

The summit discussed a proposal to elevate the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) into a specialised agency like the UNDP or WHO. While this has not been agreed upon,the related proposal to have universal membership in the UNEP has been approved. The present Commission on Sustainable Development will be replaced by a high-level inter-governmental panel mandated to pursue the elaboration and implementation of SDGs. These institutional changes are more in the nature of ad hoc responses rather than a serious effort to mobilise a global,collaborative effort to put the planet on an ecologically sustainable path.

It is important to recognise that these multilateral negotiations are more about competitive economic interests rather than about preservation of the so-called global commons. In an increasingly resource-constrained world,the rising demand for energy and other scarce resources from rapidly growing and large emerging economies threatens lifestyles in the developed world built upon easy access to cheap resources. Calls for low carbon growth and reduced emissions is driven more by a desire to limit resource demand from these emerging countries rather than concern about the health of the planet. There are loud and persistent calls from Western countries to preserve the rainforests in Brazil and Indonesia as “global commons”. Several of the same countries are engaged in a virtual race to corner and exploit the pristine waters of the Arctic Ocean for hydrocarbon resources to enable them to continue with their carbon-intensive lifestyles. Developing countries should pursue ecologically sustainable growth strategies because this is in their own interest,but should not shy away from exposing the double standards we witness in the postures adopted by some major industrialised countries.

India is right to resist constraints on its development in a global regime that does not uphold equitable burden sharing. However,we must be mindful of the fact that the ecological degradation of the planet will also place significant constraints on our development. Achieving the right balance between our national priorities and our responsibilities towards the larger humanity,of which we are a part,is the real challenge we must seek to resolve.

The writer,a former foreign secretary,is currently chairman,Research and Information System for Developing Countries,New Delhi

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