28 Jun 2012: Opinion

Beyond Rio’s Disappointment,
Finding a Path to the Future

The Rio+20 Summit produced a largely meaningless document that failed to address the daunting environmental challenges the world faces. But many at the conference looked to an alternative approach they called “green economics” — using market forces to help nations achieve sustainable development.

by fred pearce

There were no histrionics, no last-minute deals or walkouts. In fact, no anything really. The Rio+20 Earth Summit last week ended with barely a whimper. Many of the halls emptied by early afternoon on the final day. With the concluding text agreed three days earlier, the journalists had little to report, unplugged their laptops, and headed for the beaches.

And yet, behind the scenes, something really interesting just may have happened in Rio.

The summit was never going to be like its illustrious predecessor in Rio de Janeiro 20 years earlier. At the original event, virtually all the world’s leaders (including a reluctant George H.W. Bush) signed two groundbreaking treaties, on climate change and protecting biodiversity. Neither has turned out to be as effective as hoped back then. But the ambition was clear: saving the planet and achieving “sustainable development” for all.

Two decades on, the planet’s ecosystems are still degrading fast. Any green gains have been wiped out by soaring consumption. Humanity’s annual requirement for natural resources is about double what it was then. The rate of species extinctions is undiminished. Carbon dioxide emissions are up 40 percent, and the concentration of the heat-trapping gas this year
The text of the Rio+20 Declaration is lame even by the standards of international diplomacy.
for the first time hit 400 parts per million (ppm) in the Arctic air — up about 40 ppm from 1992.

But the former will among politicians to address the challenge has dissipated. Where in Rio this time, were Obama, Merkel, and Cameron? Even Hillary Clinton only showed in Rio for a few hours. Where were the new treaties to sign? Europeans in particular had hoped to get agreement on drawing up a convention to protect the high seas, which are currently not covered by either national jurisdiction or international environmental law. But an unlikely alliance of the U.S. and Venezuela, backed by Japan, Russia, and Canada, vetoed the plan at the last.

The text of the Rio+20 Outcomes Document, the conference’s main formal declaration, is lame even by the standards of international diplomacy. Beside a high-seas commitment, other proposals omitted from the declaration included an outright condemnation of subsidies for fossil fuels, support for mandatory environmental and sustainability reporting by large corporations, and a green light for green taxes. The conference did agree to start talks on setting sustainable development goals to augment the world’s existing millennium development goals, but could not agree on what topics they might cover. Even a planned upgrade of the UN Environment Programme fizzled.

The process for drafting the Rio+20 declaration was as flawed as the outcome. The Brazilian hosts decreed that all text had to be agreed before the arrival of government ministers for the final three days. As the deadline approached, they simply deleted those sections causing controversy and replaced them with weak compromise text.

At most such conferences, ministers do deals to improve on the work of their civil servants. That often produces the late-night drama. Here, they were presented with a lowest-common-denominator fait accompli. There wasn’t even a slot on the conference agenda for them to discuss the text they were signing. Any semblance of democratic accountability was lost.

The diplomats professed to be happy. The UN official in charge of the conference, Sha Zukang, declared a “successful” outcome. But environmentalists, scientists and social activists saw only that nobody had been committed to anything. Even conference veterans well versed in how to extract a smidgeon of success in grievous compromise could find nothing
‘Twenty years ago, we agreed what to do. Now we have the tools to do it,’ said a World Bank official.
to cheer. WWF International lambasted a “colossal failure of leadership and vision”; Care International called it a “charade.”

The recriminations began even before the conference closed. British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg blamed developing countries for being “antagonistic to our European ideas on the green economy.” Brazilian delegate and senator Eduardo Braga said, “Europe is too absorbed by its economic problems.”

Both were right. But so too was the director of the UN Environment Programme Achim Steiner, when he said in mid-conference that it revealed “a world at a loss what to do.” On the final day, he concluded: “We can’t legislate sustainable development in the current state of international relations.”

If not legislation, then what?

In part, the absence of ambition derives from a new realism about what international agreements alone can achieve. The World Bank’s vice president of sustainable development, Rachel Kyte, remembered how 20 years before, governments appeared to believe that the planet could be put on a green path with some environmental laws to curb Western profligacy and some overseas aid for the developing countries. Nobody believes that anymore.

But there is optimism that a new way can be found. “We have failed to turn things round in the past 20 years,” said Steiner, “but underneath that failure there is an extraordinary array of activity and innovation.” The heart of that was a beguiling phrase: green economics. Rather than fighting the power of capital, or trying to legislate away its environmental downsides, the idea is to harness market forces to turn economies onto a green track. More carrot and less stick.

Green economics, though only briefly mentioned in the final declaration, was on everyone’s lips in the corridors at Rio. Kyte insisted it was the answer. “Twenty years ago, we agreed what to do; now we have the tools to do it.” Steiner chastised environmentalists who feared it. “If we do not go
Faced with governments reluctant to engage in its grand plans, the UN is increasingly turning to corporations.
into the heart of economic policy, we will meet here at Rio+40 even more culpable. Markets are social constructs. They are not a force like gravity. They can be governed.”

Green economics, as represented in Rio, meant primarily introducing metrics about the use and abuse of nature and natural resources into corporate and national accounting. This would, as Steiner put it, bring the environment within the “visible spectrum” of economic activity.

The theory goes that once natural capital turns up on balance sheets in the same way as man-made capital, then CEOs and policy makers will adopt greener ways. Natural capital accounting should mean environmental protection is seen as an investment, rather than a cost, said economist Sam Fankhauser of the London School of Economics. Corporations will husband resources better, while governments will switch taxation onto resource use and pollution rather than economic activity itself.

Faced with national governments reluctant to engage in its grand plans, the UN is increasingly turning to corporations to make a difference. This too is seen as part of the brave new world of green economics. Tim Wirth, the former U.S. senator who now heads the UN Foundation, which fosters UN links with business, told journalists that “magic” public-private partnerships were more important that any conference declaration.

Leading the charge to grab some of the action is Chad Holliday, former president of DuPont and now chairman of the Bank of America. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has recruited him to co-chair his ambitious program to bring electricity and clean cooking fuel to the billions still without them by 2030. Holliday called the energy scheme “the greatest public-private partnership of all time” and said it would become the prototype for how to implement the planned UN sustainable development goals.

Many other CEOs have picked up the scent that there is plenty of business to be done. The UN claimed there were 1,500 corporate leaders in town for the conference, compared with only a handful in 1992.

The public-private partnerships will involve public funding, from governments and bodies such as the World Bank, leveraging further
NGOs warned in Rio that if nature had a dollar sign attached, corporations would soon take over.
investment from the profit-seeking private sector. Ban’s energy plan, dubbed “sustainable energy for all,” has brought a commitment of $2.4 billion from the Brazilian government to connect its remaining citizens to the national grid by 2014. With such inducements, corporations have pledged $50 billon in further investment round the world.

And that is just the start. In another sign of how public-private partnerships might deliver, the Asian Development Bank announced here that it had launched a consortium of banks and corporations aiming to spend $175 billion over the next decade on “sustainable” transportation systems across the developing world, including rapid-transit bus networks, railways, and fuel-efficient vehicles.

Is this the salvation of the world, or a headlong rush into an unsustainable future under a green logo? NGOs warned in Rio that if nature had a dollar sign attached, corporations would soon take it over. They see the trading of carbon rights to forests, proposed under future climate change agreements, as just the start.

Meanwhile, ecologists pointed out that ecosystems do not function like warehouse inventories and that equating natural and man-made capital could be both bad economics and bad ecology. Green economies "need to be embedded in ecological principles and not simply focused on economic growth based on new, greener production systems,” wrote Georgina Mace of Imperial College London in a paper in PLoS Biology, published to coincide with the conference.

But whatever the drawbacks of commodifying nature, something has to be done. The state of the host country today, 20 years after the first Earth Summit, underlines the failed resolve of the intervening years.


Putting a Price on
The Real Value of Nature

Pavan Sukhdev Putting a Price on
The Real Value of Nature
Indian banker Pavan Sukhdev has been grappling with the question of how to place a monetary value on nature. In an interview with Yale e360, he discusses the ways natural ecosystems benefit people and why policymakers and businesses must rethink how they assess environmental costs and benefits.
The good news is that Brazil is saving the Amazon. Deforestation rates are down over 70 percent on a decade ago. But the bad news is that it is doing so by allowing agribusiness to invade huge areas of the almost equally precious cerrado grasslands. In Rio, a megacity of some 10 million people, there are a handful more stops on the Metro, but road traffic has still vastly increased. Rio+20 was held, like its predecessor, at a vast conference complex 40 kilometers out of town, which most of the 45,000 participants reached on two-hour rides from the congested city aboard 350 air-conditioned buses.

Most worryingly, when I came to the first Earth Summit 20 years ago, everyone agreed that the model for how the developing world could achieve urban sustainability was the nearby Brazilian city of Curitiba. Its innovative bus transit system, trash recycling and poverty alleviation programs — set up by mayor and urban planner Jaime Lerner — were a huge success, as I saw on a short visit.

This time, I asked a new generation of delegates what the new urban model might be. Oh, Curitiba, they said. Any others? They scratched their heads. In two decades, nobody has successfully repeated the Curitiba experiment. Until there are thousands of Curitibas — thanks to green economics or some other means — the world will still be hurtling towards disaster. And we may not have another 20 years.

POSTED ON 28 Jun 2012 IN Biodiversity Biodiversity Forests Policy & Politics Central & South America 


We might as well face it, the general public and the powers that be prefer growth to leaving a planet for their children to live on.

I have to say also, that the terms 'sustainable development' and 'green development' turn me off. Let's face it, we cannot develop and not destroy the environment somehow. We don't have a large enough planet to have all the people of developed countries live their current lifestyle (in some undefined 'green' fashion) and bring everyone else in the world up to that level. Nobody wants to talk population control, but we can't have more people leading more comfortable lives and not have any impact on sustainability. The math just does not work. We need to talk less people and less to go around for everyone — a topic no one wants to consider.

Posted by John Dyer on 28 Jun 2012

Excellent article. Rio+20 Summit has been disappointing. Lot of expectations were there before the Summit.

Dr. A. Jagadeesh, Nellore (AP), India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 02 Jul 2012

This is a really good article.

Would also add that though the idea of natural capital has been 30 years in the making, scientists are still developing the scientific basis of ecosystem services and are still determining and verifying the methodologies and accountants are a long way off in terms of being able to do green audits to the scale needed (capacity in this already holding back the auditing of sustainability reports).

Possibly in twenty years time, we might look back with horror in how natural capital accounting has led to even greater exploitation and a fiercer resource dash that doesn’t properly reflect the actual value of the resource but more its availability (such as oil prices do today).

One thing that is for sure is that corporate and national natural capital accounting will definitely improve our understanding of how our ecosystem services are impacted by economic activity and vice-versa. In particular, we need to get the methodology right, develop consistent environmental accounting tools — employed by trained professionals who fully underderstand green accounting — in order to ensure governments and business deliver on their commitments.

Posted by Ciara Shannnon on 03 Jul 2012

One of the better analyses of the Rio outcome. But perhaps one of the most serious challenges we face now is encapsulated in the sentence: "Any semblance of democratic accountability was lost." The democracy deficit that is evident here and in the economic crises felt in some parts of the world is a serious threat to achieving the necessary system change needed. Without governments doing their duty in setting a regulatory framework and in protecting both the weak and that which cannot speak for itself — the environment — then sustainable development will remain an illusive goal.

Posted by Paul Horsman on 05 Jul 2012

The ecovaproject directed by Rafael Staelens s a great iniciatived based in the value of nature and resources.

Great great!

Posted by Andrea on 05 Jul 2012

"I asked a new generation of delegates what the new urban model might be. Oh, Curitiba, they said. Any others? They scratched their heads. In two decades, nobody has successfully repeated the Curitiba experiment."

Individual components of sustainability have come together, but were initiated and promoted by separate advocates and frames of reference. This SLDI article provides some historical foundation behind today’s reality: while we all acknowledge the need for equity between economic, social and environmental concerns and work passionately to promote it, the sustainability movement continues to struggle.

Sustainable Land Development Initiative

Posted by Terry Mock on 05 Jul 2012

As long as we are selfish, we cannot protect the universe and it will in turn not protect us. The influential players seem to be interested in harvesting the fruits of the universe, without giving back to it.

Posted by Gabriel Kufa on 12 Jul 2012

The future for our children is going to be wasted by our organic wastes that are a resource to curb massive problems from many kinds of pollutants that will be escaping from our present mishandling of those wastes. The biowaste part of organic wastes are an already harvested forever-expanding biofuel supply that can provide renewable fuel supply by pyrolyzing them. This includes sewage that can have solids, mostly cellulose filtered out to be pyrolyzed.


And we have problems with dumps and sewage plants that let germs, toxics and drugs get a chance to escape to pollute. In Spring 2010 EPA found that several synthetic female hormones getting excreted were showing up in some drinking water systems and put limits on them. WHAT GOOD IS THAT?? Shouldn't EPA be getting action to possibly remove the hormones??? And that can be done by making sewage solids into a resource through filtering off the solids that may trap the hormones and getting the solids pyrolyzed.

Pyrolysis should also become the SOP for what we send to composting operations as no one seems aware that biodegrading in composting converts perhaps 50 percent of the biocarbon present into emitted CO2 while adding heat to the biosphere. Nature does enough composting on her own that we don't need to help her in any massive way.

What we should be doing with most composting material, with all separated sewage solids and with all our food wastes and waste paper is pyrolyzing them. Pyrolysis will convert about 50\% of the biochemicals into an expelled gas mix that can be refined to be renewable fuel supply or a raw material supply for making many chemicals such as detergents or drugs. The other 50\% or so will be left as charcoal meaning coal has been remade and that means some permanent removal of CO2 from being reemitted has been achieved. This charcoal from biowastes can be used as a soil amendment and may become a supply source for a key plant growth element, phosphorus, that some scientists are voicing concern over due our reaching an end point in natural mineral supply.

It is time to see the bigger picture far beyond the emission issues at Rio-20 as our mishandling of a resource, our organic wastes, is what will dictate the survival of our children beyond 2050.

J. Singmaster, III, Ph.D. UCDavis, 1975,
Environmental Chemist, Ret.

Posted by JJames Singmaster, III, Ph.D. on 18 Jul 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He reported on the Cancun conference for New Scientist magazine, where he serves as environmental consultant. He is the author of numerous books, including When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence and The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future. In earlier articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about the low expectations preceding the Rio+20 summit and the fallout from the “Climategate” controversy.



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