At Rio’s Earth Summit, another chance to take action to address hunger and climate change passes us by.
Friday marked the end of the Rio +20 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Given the low expectations, many governments are doing their best to portray the summit as a success. We at ActionAid, like nearly all of our colleagues in civil society, are unimpressed.
So what’s there to be cheerful about? The answer is “almost nothing”, but let’s take a look at the positive, which included the following:
- There was an outcome document. At one point it seemed possible that there would be no document at all, given the rigid positions taken by the U.S. and the unwillingness of rich countries to talk about monetary commitments.
- The outcome document did not backslide on previous commitments. Indeed it mentioned the need to move forward on previous commitments, including those of Agenda 21, the ambitious plan of action agreed 20 years ago at the first Rio Earth Summit.
- At some side events, including at the launch of the UN’s Zero Hunger Challenge, governments did agree to put some money towards sustainable development. At that event, the UK announced that they were putting £150 million towards ending hunger.
- Most importantly, representatives of civil society from Brazil and across the globe came together in the People’s Summit, to discuss the problems with and alternatives to the current economic system and put forward concrete suggestions that, if implemented, would move us towards a more sustainable future.
OK, that’s about it for the good bits. While these are not trivial, they are hugely disappointing given the amount of resources that have been put into the summit and more importantly the magnitude of the crises facing the world’s poor and marginalized communities. How did we get to this sorry state of affairs?
In side discussions with officials from Africa, Asia and Latin America, we often heard a similar refrain. The US and Europe talk very nicely about sustainable development, they said, but are silent when asked to put forward money to carry out the needed transformation of developing economies. Without some actual money on the table, these lofty ambitions can never become a reality. While some governments, including Denmark, which was speaking for the European Union, seemed willing to discuss possibilities around new ways of raising money including a tax on financial transactions, powerful countries still block these initiatives at the global level.
A second reason for the impasse is a fundamental disagreement about what is needed. A lot of the talk about a transition to a “green economy” promotes false solutions. The trading of carbon credits, whether linked to forests, soil, or pollution, is seen as some kind of magic bullet that will ensure that companies begin to pay their fair share. But on examination, carbon markets seem like efficient ways to raise money for all kinds of institutions (including the World Bank), but extremely inefficient ways to punish polluters. A straightforward carbon tax might be a much more efficient way.
Biofuels– which studies show may well emit more carbon than fossil fuels – is another false solution that remains on the table, despite an emerging consensus [pdf] that the promotion of biofuels is exacerbating the food crisis by causing competition between food and fuel.
While proponents of these false solutions – some of whom stand to make a lot of money should they be accepted and promoted by governments – cannot claim that they had a victory at Rio +20, it seems clear that these and other bad ideas are still on the table.
And here we arrive at the fundamental question: what is the “green economy”?
At Rio and at the G20 summit in Mexico which preceded it, the term “green economy” was everywhere - in the welcome packets, on advertising hoardings, and in the title of nearly every workshop. While I’ve got nothing against the color green, it must be said that this term is not very descriptive and therefore can be used to mean whatever is convenient at the moment. Big businesses have clearly understood that there is a change coming, and that this change is called “the green economy” and are struggling to control its definition, in part through claiming that false solutions like carbon markets and biofuel promotion should be part of it.
But the need of the moment is for policies based on science and fact, rather than on what will make the most money for those who already have a lot of it. ActionAid and our allies must come together to help define what an alternative economic system would really look like, perhaps through multiple “green economies”. Whatever alternative we put forward must certainly have human rights and environmental sustainability at its core.
Fortunately, there were people in Rio who were discussing what alternative green economies should look like. Unfortunately, they were not discussing it at the Earth Summit, but rather at the alternative People’s Summit, where women’s movements, farmer’s organizations, activists for the rights of indigenous peoples and hundreds of other groups came together to put forward an alternative vision and came out in the streets to demand that leaders begin to chart a new course [in Portuguese, English version will soon be available here].
The Future We Want – the rather ambitious name the UN gave to the official summit’s outcome document -- depends on how we all can engage with and empower these movements to demand that leaders take real action. Until then, our leaders seem determined to continue with business as usual.