Menu Close

Rio+20: Small steps could get us out of the climate quicksand

Big, ambitious strides aren’t the way to escape from this mess. EPA/Zsolt Szigetvary

Yesterday, Nick Rowley looked at the history of sustainability agreements and why we’ve reached the impasse of Rio+20. Today he suggests a different approach.

Back in November 2005, your perspective on the Kyoto Protocol was the shorthand way to judge your climate change bona fides. Even express constructive criticism of the existing treaty arrangements under Kyoto and you ran the risk of being pilloried by environmental advocates as some sinister force of darkness.

In that month, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair convened the first meeting of the G8+5 group of nations at Lancaster House, a grand Victorian building behind London’s Mall. The delegates came together to discuss how to achieve a more effective international response to the climate problem. Delegates from all G8 nations and the rapidly developing economies of Mexico, South Africa, China, India and Brazil attended. It was an early move in crafting the case for a more effective global climate treaty with the right group of decision makers.

In his presentation, Blair stated the case for “a post Kyoto agreement”. Given that the provisions of the protocol only lasted until 2012, this was a perfectly clear and rational way to describe what was required. Fifteen minutes later, the heads of two of the world’s best-known environmental organisations were on the phone talking the language of “betrayal”. The front page of two broadsheet newspapers spoke of the Prime Minister having “rejected” Kyoto.

The story simply illustrates the enduring immaturity of environmental politics. Just at the point when the captain has assembled a team with the skill and ability to win, the fans berate him for his pre-match team talk, undermining his authority and making some of the star recruits wonder why they bothered to turn up.

Genuine, lasting progress on these issues can only be achieved when governments and political leaders see them as central. The Rio+20 conference later this week comes as a footnote to the G20 in Mexico. Some heads of state will be stopping off on their way home. Many won’t. Economy first, sustainability second; it’s every G20 leader’s itinerary.

The choreography of major United Nations conferences is now well rehearsed. First, compelling scientific research reveals the parlous state of the world’s natural environment and systems. Second, there are demands for a more effective global political response to these problems. Third, there are revelations of the lack of political consensus and the potential breakdown of negotiations around an agreed text, followed by the final act: an eleventh hour agreement on text describing a process for reaching future agreement.

The UN meeting in Bali in 2007 agreed on two years to establish a more adequate global climate treaty. At Copenhagen, individual states pledged their future commitments through the Copenhagen Accord. In South Africa last year the “Durban Platform” agreed that a legally binding treaty would be established in 2015 and be implemented in 2020.

And so it will be at Rio+20. A text will, at the last moment, be agreed. Having sustainable development goals similar to the Millennium Development Goals has merit, but it will be agreement to future commitment. Words without finance and institutional capacity run the risk of being forgotten until the next meeting.

There are many reasons for this merry dance. Richer countries have the wealth and capacity to adopt new low emissions technologies, infrastructure and processes. Countries such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa, in the midst of their first experience of rapid industrial development, are understandably unreceptive to taking lessons from the Europeans. These divisions are powerful. They are born of political economy, history and culture: factors that will not be overcome by agreements at any single point in time.

Despite all the evidence of the potentially catastrophic future effects of climate change, and catastrophic climate events such as the current drought in the Sahel, many are a long way from accepting the psychological truth that humanity is a major driver of these events. Humanity, so long striving to contain and master the power of our natural systems, is now undermining the global dynamics that sustain us. This is highly confronting for our ethical, religious and personal values. Even among those who “accept” the scientific evidence, it is hard to make the personal, policy or business decisions consistent with that acceptance.

These tensions, and this complexity, means we have yet to establish a mature and consistent environmental politics, and with it the policies and incentives that these global problems require. Very few, if any, of the signatories to the text coming out of Rio this week accept that their state’s performance on emissions reduction and clean growth should be, or will become, the fundamental criteria whereby countries and economies are assessed over the coming century.

Nobel prize winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom understood these dynamics well. Before her death last week she, more than anyone else, assessed and described a path towards more a more effective international response to global problems such as climate change.

For Ostrom, the progress to agreement must be incremental, tangible and measureable. No single approach adopted at a global scale can generate sufficient trust between governments. It is only decisions and deeds at the multiple levels of firms, investors together with national, state and local governments that will now drive the response to the climate problem.

Having spent my time working at the pointy end of international climate negotiations I now accept that Ostrom is right: the international architecture of agreement will not be built by negotiators working for sovereign governments on text-based agreements, but by multiple stakeholders.

Rio+20 will conclude. The stages will be dismantled and those attending will return home. Yet the most significant decisions will not be taken beneath the chandeliers of Lancaster House, vast Brazilian plenary halls or political back rooms. They are already being taken by sovereign governments such as South Korea who have a five year plan focused on green growth; corporations like General Electric whose business strategy is founded on developing and commercialising clean, low carbon technology and infrastructure and investors who, in 2011, provided more than $250 billion for new renewable energy projects. There are other examples, there need to be more, but the trends are encouraging.

International diplomacy is no longer the means to place climate and sustainability at the core of international geo-politics. Yet I am optimistic. It is new affiliations between investors, entrepreneurs, city governments and regional alliances between States, that will demonstrate the environmental, economic and human benefits of more efficient, clean, low emissions activities and so defeat political and policy complacency and create the momentum for meaningful, enduring international agreement.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 171,200 academics and researchers from 4,743 institutions.

Register now