Part I of an on-the-ground series of columns following the Rio+20 Earth Summit, 13-22 June in Rio de Janeiro.
Twenty years after the first UN Earth Summit of 1992, fifty to a hundred thousand stakeholders and leaders of the world have gathered in Rio for the Rio+20 Earth Summit. The document under negotiation is titled, ambitiously, ‘The Future We Want’—a tall order, to say the least. I will focus in this post on the background and possibilities of the Earth Summit.
Born out of the ashes of World War II, the United Nations has been drawn historically to the business of resurrection, from tending the wounds of war to reviving the yet unfulfilled project of sustainable development. The 1992 Earth Summit was the first collective global forum of its kind on the idea of sustainable development—meeting the needs of humanity without trespassing on the environmental integrity that is essential for human flourishing.
As global goodwill usually goes, much was promised and not so much implemented. The first Earth Summit did, however, affirm—if not create—a globally legitimatized language and grammar to discuss sustainable development. Having this shared language has been vital for many of the battles of the past twenty years. The 1992 Summit formed, amongst other things, the UNFCCC Climate Change Convention that produced the Kyoto Protocol, and globally coined the terms common but differentiated responsibilities’ and ‘precautionary principle’, now a statutory requirement in EU law. Twenty years later, with current challenges, we would need even much more, not least to holistically address the social justice aspect of our crises.
After a generational period of reflection, impacted much by the global financial crisis and climate change, there has been an increasing realization that the systemic imbalances and inequities inherent in the current structure of the world economy itself pose major obstacles to the change needed on both the social and environmental fronts. With this in mind, it was decided some years ago that the main themes of Rio+20 would be the improvement of the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development, as well as the Transition to a Green Economy in the Context of Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication.
While locally interpretable, the green economy idea will constitute a global set of recommendations for just transition, addressing human flourishing, wellbeing, and decent work in the framework of valuing the environment. Importantly, the environment is conceived here not only in terms of climate, but also the widespread and accelerating collapse of the fragile ecosystems that sustain our planet – for instance, the Blue Planet theme addresses the staggeringly high volumes of plastic floating in our oceans. Many life-engendering ecosystems have perished already, and most others are on the verge of doing so. This, in turn, is largely due to the relentless march of infinitely growing production and exploitation of the earth, which the Sustainable Consumption and Production agenda aims to tackle. Though the themes range dramatically, the core message is that without the environment preserved and better shared, there will be nothing left to feed, house, or foster humanity.
The themes similarly try to speak for the global civil society and social justice. The International Trade Unions Conference (ITUC) has been active in promoting a ‘just transition’, which acknowledges the costs involved in creating a low-carbon green economy, especially burdensome for the developing countries that will need technology and financial transfers to bridge the global wealth gap. Unless rich countries are willing to commit to such redistribution of wealth, a Group of 77 (G77) negotiator put it aptly, “the future generations we speak about will have no beds to hang our declaration above.” Part of this is also the ‘green and decent jobs and skills’ agenda, which could do much to address the double crises of persistent unemployment and lack of green investment. The International Labour Organization, along with countries like Finland, has been pushing for a new sustainable development strategy exemplified by the idea of a social protection floor. Such nationally based, long-term, and self-sufficient institutions—not dependent of fickle aid flows—could provide an overarching safety net for those who need re-skilling in the transition.
One of the most encompassing ideas to grace the agenda at Rio+20 is ‘Beyond GDP,’ which concerns redefining what progress, wellbeing and success mean, and how we actually achieve prosperity. The idea acknowledges that GDP is a wholly inadequate measure of wellbeing, valuing things like fossil fuel extraction and financial speculation, to the exclusion of distribution and wealth or sustainability. GDP accumulation should not serve as the primary paradigm for development, nor the continuing national goal for already rich countries where wellbeing is no longer enhanced by rising wealth, but could rather be enhanced by rebuilding communities and public services. For developing countries, on the other hand, ‘Beyond GDP’ would still translate to continued economic growth under the principle of their ‘right to development’ up to a standard of sufficiency. But it would also mean further valuing human-based prosperity, long-term sustainability, and non-financial activities, instead of the export-led growth that often benefits the pockets of the very few.
Rio+20 could in this sense assert that the ‘solution’ to poverty is not the unsustainable, and ultimately unfulfilling, Western middle-class ideal of wealth, but perhaps instead sufficiency, autonomy, and wellbeing. Bhutan, a country that has resisted many of the more brutal aspects of economic globalization, recently showed example by convening a high-level conference in the UN to place happiness at the heart of economic progress. Such alternative valuing systems for what we deem ‘progress’ are crucial, as ultimately, we end up valuing what we measure. Initiatives like the Global Transition and the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index, which places Costa Rica as the country that best delivers wellbeing within environmental limits, have done much in the lead-up to Rio+20 to narrate such alternative frameworks. This would place the reality of nature and the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’, featured in the Rio text, as the framing within which the economy functions—instead of blind adherence to a virtual reality of endless capital accumulation within increasingly finite planetary limits.