No breakthrough in Rio despite looming deadline

Thousands of participants to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) continued to pour into Brazil’s picture postcard coastal city on Thursday. They will be joined by 130 heads of state and government – apart from many more ministers – next week. But the main reason why they are all here remained bogged down in controversy.

Coming 20 years after this city hosted the Earth Summit and set into motion three global treaties to fight climate change and desertification as well as protect biodiversity, the Rio+20 summit was expected to be much more than a stocktaking exercise – it was supposed to provide a direction that national economies can take to grow, without depleting natural resources beyond the point of no return. But on the second day of the three-day preparatory meeting – the last stage of a months-long tortuous process – there was no agreement on key points of a declaration that can set the ball rolling in the right direction.

The big sticking points remained drearily familiar – rich countries are unwilling to help poor countries obtain green technologies cheap, nor are they willing to provide financial support to build capacity in very poor countries to move towards a green economy. And there are serious debates on what the green economy means, with major developing countries like Brazil, China and India worried that it is a rich-country ruse for trade protectionism. On their part, rich countries insist that the major developing countries take a bigger share of the burden to clean the earth’s air, water and soil, and are strenuously opposing one of the pillar of the 1992 agreement, what is known as “common but differentiated responsibility” between developed and developing countries.

Nikhil Seth, director of the Sustainable Development Division in the UN, said the resolution would still have many important guiding principles. “There is new emphasis on how businesses and the civil society can be involved more closely in the move towards a better future. There is far more emphasis on gender and indigenous rights. There is a lot of support for a green economy that will lead to better efficiency, decarbonisation and inclusiveness. There is also a lot of support to making the UN Environment Programme an inclusive and universal body. And most important, we may have the sustainable development goals, which will provide the framework for the international system to direct development cooperation.”

But as with all UN negotiations where 193 governments have to reach consensus, nothing is final till everything is final, and heads of government may find themselves in the unenviable position of having to actually sit and draft the Rio+20 resolution. In that case, most observers fear the lowest common denominator may become so low that it will be meaningless.