Rio+20: Beyond the Legacy of Despair

In June 2012, there will be a follow-up to the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro twenty years earlier. The upcoming summit (Rio + 20) will focus on two main issues: the green economy and the debate about the establishment of an institutional framework for sustainable development.

Although the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a product of the 1992 Earth Summit, underscored the historic responsibility of industrialized countries, it has not been applied in a legally-binding manner.

The UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol was adopted in December 1997 and entered into force in February 2005, after its ratification by the Russian Federation. The United States government signed the agreement, but it has not since been ratified by the successive Clinton, Bush or Obama administrations. The Kyoto Protocol has –unsuccessfully – aimed at bringing about international consensus for the most highly-polluting countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5%, minimum, between 2008 and 2012, compared to 1990.

Since 1996, the UNFCCC has organized all summits on climate change. In 2009, the Summit on Climate Change held in Copenhagen (COP-15) should have ended with an international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which is only effective until 2012. The refusal by the wealthy Northern countries to reduce carbon emissions, the absence of a legally-binding measure to fight the climate crisis, and the general pettiness and selfishness of negotiators resulted in a failure of the forum to reach any agreement whatsoever.

The Summit unveiled the crisis in multilateralism. In fact, multilateral relations and the basic procedures of the UN system were broken. In this organization every country has a voice and a vote and decisions are agreed upon by all members. Nevertheless, a small group of countries (Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the US) negotiated an agreement, behind closed doors, in which their private interests prevailed over climate change imperatives and they submitted a document to be signed by the 192 UN Member States. Thus, the Summit on Climate Change turned out to be an utter failure.

At the XVI Conference on Climate Change, held in Cancun (December 2010), no agreement on legally-binding reductions was reached either. However, a proposal was submitted for the creation of a Green Fund (USD 100 billion) to help “developing” countries in their fight against climate change, as well as to limit the rise in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius.

At the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the idea of sustainable development was also discussed and then articulated in “Our common future” (1987-1988), a report coordinated by Gro Harlem Brundtland in the context of the UN.

In his 1997 article ”Sobre el origen, el uso y el contenido del término sostenible” (about the origin, use and content of the term sustainable),  José Naredo, pioneer of the ecological economics in Spain,  describes the ambiguity and contradiction surrounding this term, which links development (with a vast tradition in economics) and load capacity (used in biology). A number of international officials (from public and private entities, and non-governmental organizations) have profited from sustainable development and an endless number of fruitless meetings have been held on the topic. In these events, energy, paper and time was wasted; rhetoric has taken priority over results.

The rapid disappearance of biodiversity due to the demise of tropical forests caused by extractive activities, cattle raising and monocultures (when carried out in fragile ecosystems) and, at the same time, an acceleration in emissions (carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is growing 2 parts per million a year) are demanding a new – ecological and supportive – economy.

From the South, it is preferable to speak of the Good Way of Living, the “Sumak Kawsay” incorporated to the Constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia, approved by popular consensus. If in 1992 the UN imposed the ambiguous, even contradictory, term of “sustainable development”, now it is preparing to impose the concept of “Green Economy” in Rio + 20 in 2012. Who knows, perhaps in 2032 the UN, or what is left of it, will propose the term “green development” and, in 2052, “sustainable economy”. Meanwhile, we continue on our way toward ecological disaster. It would be more appropriate for Rio + 20 to be the Meeting on Social and Environmental Justice.