Rio+20 must… do the impossible

There’s no shortage of advice for the Heads of State and other officials meeting in Rio next month to discuss sustainable development.  An internet search on ‘Rio+20 must’ turned up 45,000 results, with imperatives ranging from the top level (‘build a new economic order’; ‘empower the grassroots’; ‘guarantee a right to the future’) to the specific (address transport, land rights, innovation, job creation… and many other things, apparently).

The level of ambition of those outside the Rio process is not matched by those within it.  The last round of negotiations on the ‘Outcome document’ finished in New York at the end of last week, and the signs are that concrete agreements will be hard to come by.

There are about 420 paragraphs of text in the current document, and apparently 400 are yet to be agreed.  The UN has added more days on to the negotiating timetable between now and the start of the conference, but it’s not looking good for those wanting Rio to make tough new commitments (see here for a great summary of the discussions, and for daily reports on the last two week negotiating marathon as it unfolded).

Why is it so difficult? Contained within the innocuous-sounding term ‘sustainable development’ are two fundamentally different aims.  To be ‘sustainable’, the human race as a whole – for which read richer people – has to consume less.   But to get ‘development’, poor people have to consume more.

The demands of combining these apparently irreconcilable but necessary objectives threaten to test the global system to breaking point.  Many negotiators have seized with relief on one idea which seems to offer a way out: the proposal for a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  These would be linked in some as yet unclear way to the Millennium Development Goals which focus on poverty reduction, and to their successors after 2015 (they might, in some versions of the idea, be the successors to the MDGs).

The new MDG/SDG hybrid could, it is hoped, bring the same level of attention and political commitment to sustainable development as the MDGs brought to poverty, and together the two could provide guidance on how to marry consuming more in some parts of the world with consuming less elsewhere.

Are SDGs the answer that Rio+20 has been looking for?  Maybe, but maybe not.  Negotiators are finding that even shiny new goals won’t change the politics.  Some countries are worried that SDGs are a back-door attempt to impose global limits on resource use that will limit countries’ ability to develop.  Others worry that too much focus on the sustainability part of the equation will weaken the global commitment to poverty reduction.  And still others are wary that a new agreement might involve them making commitments to spend money that they don’t have.

Current signs are that Rio won’t solve this problem.  But it could send some signals that would give the process a push in the right direction:

First, money talks.  Ethiopia’s ambitious green growth plan is based around the two objectives of keeping carbon emissions at 2012 levels while reaching middle income country status by 2025. Part of the reasoning behind this is the availability of climate finance to fund investments in clean energy, transport and agriculture.  Big, but believable, commitments to climate finance could make a big difference.

Second, information helps.  At the moment, governments make decisions with information about incomes and prices, and social indicators about health and education outcomes.  They don’t know what’s happening to the environment.  Better information about ‘natural capital’ – the environmental resources of a country and what is happening to them – would help governments to make and explain trade-offs between conflicting objectives.

Third, the goals have to be right.  The MDGs show how goals – well defined and packaged, and given political weight through the actions of civil society and other groups – can focus political attention on a few problems.  But it’s got to be done right, or the end result will be a list of unattainable aspirations that make the politics more complicated rather than less.  This is lesson number one for the newly-announced chairs of the UN’s High Level panel of Eminent Persons, who are the next in line to resolve this conundrum, once the Rio+20 negotiators have packed up and left the beaches of Rio behind.

Blog by Dr. Claire Melamed, Head of Growth, Poverty and Inequality at ODI.

3 Comments on "Rio+20 must… do the impossible"

  1. Claire

    Thanks for the post – I have a vision for success at Rio on which later, but wanted to comment on your post.

    It is possibly dangerous and unnecessary to argue for less consumption globally; a 10 per cent decrease in consumption can easily shave USD 50 billion off SSA GDP immediately, aggrevating poverty. European voters, instead, are arguing for a Keneysian stimulus to boost growth and reduce poverty. What you really mean is that we need a different pattern of consumption (or stimulus), especially in the developed and large emerging powers, i.e. use of fewer materials / natural resources, which may not exclude an increase in the value of consumption (e.g. producing and consuming better quality haircuts). It is important to think more on what precisely is needed. And on the economic instruments and consumer campagins that are needed for this urgent and transformational shift.

    It is true that past (say duirng the last 2 decades) absolute decoupling has not been enough globally (so that would have supported your argument of less consumption per se), but technically it is feasible (although increasingly difficult given the water-energy-land exus) to reach most of the obvious enviromnental goals by 2050 whilst growing and increasing consumption (ie absolute decoupling globally, and in some case it already happens at a smaller scale). But a lot has to happen fro that.

    Considering national accounting (cf consumption / development) it is important is understand that development occurs through investment and innovation (which are caused by deep determinants) – China invests 40-50% of GDP – not really through consumption (though consumption could be a symptom of past investment and development). Buying / consuming a presidential airplane or a luxury car won’t necessarily lead to much development in the long-run, but those that have invested successfully in the past might be able to afford consumer goods.

    I hope people do not make the same mistake as with the design of MDGs, as if development can be delivered, and which falls from the sky. There is a a whole range of supply side factors (e.g. institutions, innovation, diversification, the right type of growth) that need to be in place in order to “get” development, and these do not fall from heaven, but need to evolve and be created on this planet (see e.g. )

    Dirk Willem

  2. Claire Melamed | May 13, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply

    Thanks Dirk for the comments. I hope you’re right that globally it’s possible to reduce resource use without actually reducing resource consumption overall (it might be clearer to say ‘consumption of natural resources’ throughout – perhaps I will start to use that term instead) – though, as you also say, we don’t yet have the technology to make that possible. I’d argue that it’s probably safer to plan on the basis of the technology we have now, rather than assuming someone will come along with a magical technical want and make the problem go away – though like you I very much hope they will!

    But of course this argument is exactly not about less consumption globally – it’s about redistributing consumption so that there’s more among poor people and less among rich people. And it’s about all the inputs – the ‘developoment’, as you define it – which need to happen to make that possible.

  3. Thank you for trying to tackle “the impossible”.

    Considering the green economy is one of the main themes at Rio I was surprised that you do not mention it. Rio+20 is once-in-a-generation event taking place against a backdrop of mounting economic, financial, environmental, social and security crises, including food, water and energy. It is becoming increasingly clear that a rapid expansion of the global green economy is the only known way to avoid the ‘perfect storm’ of these converging crises expected to hit us by the time of Rio+40.

    This historic summit also coincides with the rise of Africa, the last frontier for investment and new engine for global growth, where the expansion of the green economy can be easier, quicker and cheaper than the more developed ‘brown’ economies of the industrial and emerging countries. However, there are strong signs that Africa risks becoming the last frontier for the brown economy, or business-as-usual, rather than the first frontier for green. If this happens it will be to the detriment of us all.

    Rio+20 is a unique opportunity for Africa to forge its green identity, present its green credentials and demonstrate its potential for rapid green growth. Africa’s Consensus Statement, the continent’s key negotiating document for Rio, could be greatly strengthened by putting more emphasis on Africa’s green growth opportunities including more positive and concrete growth strategies for expanding Africa’s 54 green economies. Rio+20 is a historic forum for Africa to state its case and confirm its role as a green growth engine for helping to rebalance and stabilise the global economy.

    With 27 days left before Rio there is still time to assemble an informal draft green investment plan out of which will emerge ideas for institutional frameworks and SDGs. Curiosity, collaboration, coordination, a sense of responsibility and web-based research tools are the only inputs needed for a draft plan. Working Towards a Green Economy in Africa is a blog that hopes to encourage ‘green explorers’ in Africa to accelerate the great journey ahead. Africa’s advantage is that the explorers have been at work since 1992.

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