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Rio+20: Multi-lateralism staggers; how to make it run?

The Rio Earth Summit approach to saving the planet is looking pretty old-fashioned. United Nations Photos

Twenty years ago in a clamour of global public and media interest, representatives of all UN member states gathered in Rio de Janeiro to take part in the first Earth Summit. Later this week, the Rio+20 meeting will revisit the sustainable development agenda. The meeting aims to achieve more than the standard proclamations and agreement to future process. Yet sadly, it won’t.

Despite a lack of mainstream media interest, and political leaders distracted by challenges such as the enduring vulnerability of the global financial system, many in the environmental movement still retain hope that Rio+20 will be a moment when sustainability ambition can be realised.

The hope is false. Little of importance can, or will be agreed. Why - at a point in time when the evidence of global resource over-consumption, marine degradation, biodiversity depletion, water scarcity and the observed risks of climate change are revealed through ever more severe weather events - is this so? Surely, given the identified costs of failing to reduce humanity’s impact on the Earth’s natural systems, now is the very moment when the international system must achieve further progress to reverse these damaging, irreversible trends?

Look at the science, and this is right. Examine the politics, and one couldn’t be more wrong.

If genuine progress in Rio this month were possible, I would be arguing for it. But I just don’t believe it is. I reach this conclusion having worked to achieve an international breakthrough on climate change at Copenhagen in 2009 working for the British government and then the Copenhagen Climate Council: an affiliation of scientists, business leaders and policy practitioners marshaling the arguments for a more effective climate treaty.

The high point of multilateral approaches to global sustainability challenges was reached at the first Rio Summit in 1992. The Kyoto agreement in 1997 seemed a subsequent step towards a more effective multilateral rules-based approach. But when the international system and the UN process initiated at the Earth Summit reached the point of serious test at Copenhagen in 2009, it failed. It is only through understanding this failure and accepting it, that a more effective approach can be pursued.

The contrast between 20 years ago and now could hardly be greater. In 1992 the spirit was one of idealism. The Earth Summit came at a time when there was heightened global concern regarding environmental issues and a growing scientific consensus that the risks posed by human-induced climate change were real and needed to be addressed.

It was the culmination of a process started five years before when the UN had released Our Common Future, the seminal report produced by Gro Harlem Brundtland. This report defined the term sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It argued powerfully that, if they were to be realised, economic growth, environmental protection and social equality needed to be pursued together.

In this context, the Earth Summit was no talk-fest. With all the preparation in the months and years prior, out of the summit came the international agreements and institutions that now govern sustainable development. Most significant amongst them was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); a treaty with the objective of stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

More than agree lofty goals, the UNFCCC established national inventories to measure and verify the existing levels of emissions and progress towards their reduction. As a geo-political achievement this is not to be sniffed at. And through the Kyoto Protocol, agreed in 1997, legally binding emissions-reduction obligations were placed on nations, incentivising new domestic and international policy.

The experience of Rio greatly influenced my work when advising Prime Minister Tony Blair on the priorities for the UK Presidency of the 2005 G8 meeting at Gleneagles. We knew that if a multilateral agreement was going to be reached in the coming years to drive emissions reductions close to what the science was saying was required, the momentum and the preparation had to be even greater than that before the first Earth Summit.

It was. Blair played his role; climate was one of the two priorities of his 2005 G8 Presidency. This made it, for the first time, an issue to be understood, discussed and acted on by Heads of State and involved the rapidly developing economies of China, Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa. These so-called “G8+5” members had a forum to develop responses outside of the formal, slow, consensus driven UN process.

The Stern Review made the economic case, Al Gore raised public awareness, the science only firmed, and the observed climatic events of the 2003 European heat wave, the Australian drought and Hurricane Katrina did the rest.

It was the 2009 UNFCCC meeting in Copenhagen where the weaknesses of the Kyoto burden-sharing approach had to be overcome, and the divisions between “developed” and “developing” nations had to be bridged. And yet, even with all the diplomatic and wider preparation, they weren’t. Despite the largest gathering of presidents and prime ministers in human history, what came out of the meeting was no more than a statement of existing commitments, a more significant role for the rapidly developing economies, and an agreement to keep talking.

As I left the cavernous Bella Centre on the outskirts of the Danish capital on a freezing December weekend I knew we’d lost the opportunity to shape a new global politics and set of rules to address the potentially catastrophic risks of climate change. All that was agreed was a reflection of the existing politics. Only in the months and years following has it become clear how damaged the international process first initiated at the Earth Summit now is.

People are right to be sceptical of UN processes and the potential for a binding multilateral agreement on addressing the climate problem. For the foreseeable future it is not in the halls of Brazilian conference centres where the most important decisions will be taken.

The lessons from Copenhagen are many, but key is the need for action rather than analysis, words, agreements or even the science to drive progress. It is by demonstration that renewed momentum can achieve international agreement, not the other way around: new policies, incentives, technologies and low carbon infrastructure established, built and implemented.

It will not be Rio, or any international meeting where a single agreement and breakthrough will be reached. Our global response to climate change and sustainability must now be a process of progressive incrementalism through decisions made by national, state and local governments, investors, businesses and individuals. It is now only through these decisions that the world can reduce the risks of climate change and place our common relationship with the Earth’s natural systems into the balance argued for 20 years ago.

Tomorrow, Nick looks at some possible solutions, taking small steps to climate agreement.

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