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Analysis: Rio +20 – Epic Failure

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Rio.  But is it a bright future? (Image: shutterstock)

Rio de Janeiro, the Cidade Maravilhosa, the home of Christ the Redeemer, is the birthplace of the United Nations Earth Summit.

So it seems appropriate that the giant beast of sustainable development negotiations should come here to die. And where New World Vultures smell the wounded and circle overhead.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known as the Earth Summit, was first held in Rio in June 1992.  Over 170 governments took part along with 2,400 representatives of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) while 17,000 people attended the parallel, consultative event called Forum Global.

The first summit delivered the Climate Change Convention.  It was ambitious – laying the foundation of the Kyoto Protocol and the Convention on Biological Diversity.  There the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which established 27 sustainable development principles, Agenda 21 and the Forest Principles were also agreed.

More importantly, the first Earth Summit represented a message of hope.

Environmental concerns, from climate change to biodiversity, were no longer the obsessions of green pressure groups and charities like Greenpeace and WWF. Global solutions were now being sought by world governments.

US president George H W Bush made an unexpected appearance at the summit and the newly elected John Major was an enthusiastic and engaged lead for the UK delegation.

For many environmental NGOs, it was a miracle birth. For some corporations, it represented a real threat.

But here we are, twenty years later, with the United Nations hosting the Rio+20, the largest event of its kind with sustainable development dominating the agenda.

Four great aircraft-hanger style pavilions host hundreds of world leaders, NGOs and journalists.

Yet something has changed.  Instead of injecting new life into the earth summit process, the atmosphere is one of somber acceptance or outright grief.

Barbara Stocking, the chief executive of Oxfam, told one of the closing press briefings of the summit: “Rio will go down as the hoax summit. They came, they talked, but they failed to act. Paralysed by inertia and in hock to vested interests, too many [world leaders] are unable to join up the dots and solve the connected crisis of environment, equality and economy.”

Something has changed.  Instead of injecting new life into the earth summit process, the atmosphere is one of somber acceptance or outright grief.

Daniel Mittler, political director of Greenpeace was similarly downbeat.  He said: “The epic failure of Rio+20 was a reminder [that] short-term corporate profit rules over the interests of people…They spend $1 trillion a year on subsidies for fossil fuels and then tell us they don’t have any money to give to sustainable development.”

The French NGO La Ligue de L’Enseignement invited delegates to answer the question, What will our children remember of Rio+20? on small sheets of paper to hang from a line. Responses ranged from “UN captured by corporate states” to “bullshit”.

The instillation reminds you of the impromptu paper and flower shrines that appear when deaths are reported in the media.

Rio+20 is indeed showing signs of rigor mortis.

Barak Obama, who was elected on a wave of euphoria at the departure of the toxic George W Bush, was too busy fighting an election to bring presidential gravitas to the forum. His delegates have purged the document.  They have struke out phrases like “unsustainable consumption and production patterns” and the suggested decoupling of economic growth from natural resource depletion.

David Cameron was caught up in the immediacy of the economic crisis tearing through Europe to turn his attention to the future ecological crisis affecting the planet. The UK delegation was led by an exhausted and despondent deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who was also fighting a rearguard action to prevent his coalition partners from ending equal education for UK children.

If not dead, then Rio+20 was certainly suffering from Locked-in Syndrome, paralysed but with some signs of life around the eyes. The conference statement, The Future We Want, was locked down before the world leaders arrived. The press were locked out of the delegates pavilion, in contrast to previous earth summits.

The leaders and delegates are housed in the military-hospital style hanger named Pavilion 4 in neat little rows and in alphabetical order.

Clegg, who looks every part the family GP, gave his consultation to journalists from within the small, plastic-paneled over-lit cabin.

He told the huddle of journalists that he had called Brazil from Heathrow suggesting the text should be reopened.  But the UK, echoing the US, accepted that this would be opening “a Pandora’s box” and whatever gains had been made in agreeing the statement would be lost. He blamed the G77, the developing world, rather than the UK and US, for the failures of Rio+20.

And he gave a lively summary of the latest initiative, GDP+, where the UK would allocate a monetary value to natural resources so that the government could measure the “net” benefits from development. This would, he suggested, help us diagnose the problem and therefore was part of the cure. But there would be no regulation or penalties for companies that continued to drill and devastate.

He had also announced £150m for six million smallholder farms in sub-Saharan Africa to help them adapt to climate change. This is £25 each for a future of drought and instability.

Clegg argued that the Future We Want document could be used by governments to deliver real and material Sustainable Development Goals.

In reality, the final communiqué is so diluted that any remedy it offers to the world can only be homeopathic.

There were, however, signs of real vitality and excitement in one quarter of the summit: among the global corporations were now being touted as “partners” with national governments in the project of delivering sustainable development. More than 1,000 businesses were represented at Rio.

The vultures had formed a committee. The Business Action for Sustainable Development event, Scale Up, was held at the Windsor Barra Hotel on the seafront. It was buzzing, with 200 CEOs in attendance. Delegates were offered a free lunch of smoked salmon between meetings on sustainability.  Partners included Unilever, PepsiCo, PwC, the Air Transport Action Group and the International Council on Mining and Metals.

Speakers at the event included Gregory Bond, corporate director of product responsibility at Dow Chemical, owner of Union Carbide.  The company has been criticised for its links to Bhopal and the death of 20,000 people.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of Nestlé was also on the bill. Nestlé has been the target of a boycott by Baby Milk Action because it allegedly contributed “to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants around the world by aggressively marketing baby foods in breach of international marketing standards”.

It also included Bea Hickox, chief sustainability officer of the Coca-Cola Company. The state government of Kerala in India went to the supreme court in 2006 stating that “poor villages are deprived of drinking water due to overuse of ground water by Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada to produce bottled drinks for sale to people who have purchasing capacity in different cities of the country.”

The BASD session on “oil and gas industry and sustainable development” included Allard Castelein, the vice-president environment at Shell with Ellen Williams, the chief scientist at BP, and Manoelle Lepoutre, executive president for sustainable and environment at Total.

The programme stated: “Sustainable development is a shared responsibility that needs action today. The oil and gas industry’s challenge is to continue to find and provide essential fuels in ways that are environmentally and socially responsible [emphasis added].”

This statement was distributed around Rio+20 just two years after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and as carbon emissions rise unabated.

And for many of these companies, the debate is not really about sustainable development but “sustainable consumption” and “lifestyles”.

It is consumers that need “education” and “choice editing” to achieve sustainability. In the end it is you – the consumer – that is responsible for climate change and environmental degradation.

The logic of this argument ends with the startling conclusion where Robert Ter Kuile, senior director of environmental sustainability and global public policy at PepsiCo, appears to be blaming fat children for drinking too much Pepsi.

He told the room of business people: “Hands up who likes to celebrate something: a birthday, a vacation. Then have a Pepsi. But after you go running? Have Gatoraid. If you want something healthy and good for your heart, have some water. It is about having a broad range of products that will meet individual needs rather than using Pepsi for hydration. That’s not what it was designed for. It’s for fun and to celebrate things.”

Robert obviously does not remember the 1987 advert, The End of Thirst. No-one in the room noticed. No-one asked how much sugar there is in Gatoraid.

The apparent corporate cooption of Rio+20 was seemed universally accepted and inevitable. Greenpeace launched its stunning Save The Arctic campaign at Rio+20 with Richard Branson, the billionaire owner of the Virgin Atlantic airline. None of the assembled journalists asked if low cost transatlantic travel and space tourism can be sustainable.

Lord Monckton, the climate sceptic, tried to crash the event. But the smart corporate PR message has changed from “there is no problem” to “we are the solution”.

I asked Clegg whether BP and Shell could really be considered “partners” in the desperate attempt to resuscitate Rio+20 and the sustainable development agenda. During the summit it had been announced that carbon emissions had risen 48 percent since 1992 with the US output up 10 percent. And now governments look to business and businesses blame consumer demand.

He told me: “What I call partnership you’re calling buck passing. Of course governments are responsible to electorates and the public for developing big shifts in public policy but what I am saying is we cannot do it alone. We have to have private sector buy-in in as well.

“There are certain things we can do unilaterally. So the fact that, as I announced yesterday, we are the first government anywhere to impose mandatory greenhouse gas reporting requirements for companies listed on the London Stock Exchange.  It is an act of policy leadership…the fact that the CBI and large business groups have welcomed this because it is part of their own leadership commercially is really significant.”

He added: “This was never going to be the great revolutionary breakthrough summit like the original earth summit. Is it less ambitious follow from the original as I had hoped? Sure. A lot less. But the point I want to make is that if we all come away from this saying, ‘Oh, it’s come nowhere near our expectations, we might as well give up’ then the sceptics and the pessimists really have won.”

By the final day, speculation among the press corps went as far as to suggest the Rio Earth Summit process was on its deathbed. Reporters were angry that there was no negotiations – no bust ups – and less access. They muttered: would world leaders really gather again to negotiate nothing and dwell on the years of inaction and failure?

The NGOs seem exhausted and disenchanted with the process. There was talk of direct action, a “war footing”, trade unions and civic engagement. Twenty years after Rio+ they were inside the tent looking out. The parallel People’s Summit attracted 15,000 indigenous and land rights groups, environmental activists, and trade unionists. It was bright, loud, large and hopeful.

Stocking concluded: “The People’s Summit was… a vision of a future we want with the people at its centre, and a rejection of business as usual…the failure of Rio+20 will feed growing public insecurity and anger. [We want] to turn that anger into an irresistible demand for change.”