Well there it is, Rio+20, done and dusted; three days of intense talks and intricate decision-making, being carried out by the most important people on the entire planet, with the rest of the entire planet at their heels desperate for a concrete, smart response on how to change the way we ravage our blue marble. Some story eh? A tale almost too lofty to consider, and yet we went and did it anyway.
Many of us hailed the latest UN +whatever talks as the moment the globe had been waiting on for over 20 years - our leaders would finally, once and for all, stand as one and vote to save this fledgling home we have, the only thing we lowly humans can trust in the darkness of space in which it floats. After the poorly constructed and ultimately pointless convention of 1992, it seemed like Brazil might actually be able to bring forth a new era of sustainability and usher in the ‘Future We Want’. This 20 year anniversary would be the winning moment, a historical event.
Well, after all the hype, hope and hysterics, what do we have? It’s fair to say, absolutely squat. In fact, I tell a lie; we have some things, things which amount to grains of sand in the grand scheme, which I shall come to a little later, but it’s safe to assume from this point onwards, that Rio+20 stunningly failed to prove anything, or provide even the slightest of substantial changes on the global agenda that is our collective future.
As I wrote in my previous post, when you put so many powerful, influential people into one single room, hold up a draft text detailing multiple deadly serious issues and their consequences on our entire society and expect that text to be signed by each and every one of them, it requires more than a stretch of reality to believe it will succeed. Our leaders are simply too individual in their decision-making, too tied to their own domestic motives, and in most cases, not the proper voice of their people.
So when you have Rio+20 going in with the expectations of a world on its shoulders and literally the most pressing matters of perhaps our entire history to address, we must have been mad to think that anything inspiring would come of it; it’s just too big a deal for something so short-lived and small-minded to conquer. With this in mind, I actually retract some of my prior negativity towards the likely outcomes of this process in my earlier post, as in fact, I was unfair in shooting it down so readily. No single stage should be burdened with such a monumental bodge job to fix, however many ‘leaders’ turn up.
But enough of that for the moment, time to list what Rio+20 actually managed to achieve amongst all the bickering and political jousting, even if it did take plenty of waiting and digging to find articles detailing such things. Over $500bn was pledged to to several issues, such as energy, food and water and ocean management, but no specifics were mentioned, whilst a seemingly arbitrary number of 800,000 tons of PVC was agreed to be recycled, whatever recycled truly meant.
Alongside this, the planting of over 100 million trees around the world was decided upon, though how this compares to the current deforestation rate which I have yet to see addressed in the talks is unknown, and gender equality a key basis for many development strategies. Apologies for seeming so cynical and judging for the sake of it, but these are simply the first thoughts running through my mind when I read these apparent successes initially, and believe that to get excited over such things is premature and nothing but setting yourself up for a fall.
Perhaps the key ‘success’ was the signing of the ‘Future We Want’ text, which outlines plenty of sustainability issues ripe for solving, and was apparently signed by a good majority of the attending member states. Now this in my opinion, is one of only two truly successful achievements to come out of the talks, the second of which I will come to shortly. This text is broad in it scope and highlights the exact key issues we need to tackle, and to progress as pretty much the only item to be signed by leaders in the whole three days is testament enough to its magnitude, but not all is well.
Yes it was important, but the language used throughout the ‘Future We Want’ is both flimsy and highly ambiguous. In just a brief summary, each point begins with a ‘beginning the process’, ‘detailing how’ or ‘developing/promoting’, and nowhere is there a solid concrete statement of intent. A personal favourite is ‘taking steps to go beyond GDP to assess the well-being of a country’. Many economists have been banding around the idea of adding sustainability and measures of the environment into GDP in order to truly value Mother Earth in the holy grail of ranking statistics, and yet we are only now ‘taking steps’? What does that even mean, and what sort of timescale does taking steps work on?
Unfortunately, this is an extremely common theme throughout the entire Rio+20 talks, with weak, non-binding and completely directionless dialogue being thrown in and out of draft texts and debate, with anything in a controversial square bracket all but swept out of consideration without even the batting of an eyelid.
All that was left come Friday was an agreement to effectively do ‘something about our over-consuming society, in a sort of sustainable direction, but we’re not sure over what timescale, in what parts of the world, and how we’re going to go about achieving it’. Leaders might have well as just given it on good faith that they would do their part for society without ever having to move from their chair or lift a pen to paper. There was nothing binding, nothing legal, nothing specific and nothing to suggest the talks had progressed.
Not only was this entirely unsurprising to some, it was hopelessly depressing and heartbreaking to most, who had been looking forward to this moment for years and years in anticipation of a global accord on climate change, green economies and third-world development. To them, their leaders have failed them spectacularly.
This leads nicely onto my second success of Rio+20 - our final and long overdue realisation that these sort of global scale gatherings of leaders under one roof for 2-3 days, just does not work. We’ve tried it many times in the past, and yet despite all but an increased release of hot air from member-state mouths, we continued to pursue the paradise ideal of solving our issues in one fell swoop. Well now, at least I believe, we’ve realised how foolish we have been. Time to move on. Time to shape up and find a new way to do things. Time to bin the global convention.
Instead by putting our collective thoughts towards bottom-up approaches through much smaller, more subnational-scale talks, where few leaders are given real direction in which to travel towards a greener future, we might just begin to make a difference. No more of this all in one room over three days deal, we need punchy, bite-sized events where voices can be heard over others, rather than being drowned out by the rich and powerful. This can still be achieved whilst addressing issues as big as the global problems covered in the ‘Future We Want’ text, without the added pointless prose and debate over one word of a paragraph.
Rio+20 provided so much, and simply failed to bring it together coherently come the final whistle, and that is as much our leaders fault as it is our striving for the ultimate signing of names on a piece of paper. The momentum, the drive, the want to do more, they are all there ready and primed to go, but 20 years down the line, we still proved unable to pull the trigger, to provide the concrete direction and discipline needed to nudge the world onto the path of recovery and rationality, the job assigned to Rio+20.
All we need to do realise this is to reinvent the old multilateral style of global government shouting contests, and usher in a structure which takes no prisoners and is not afraid to stick to the original plan, the plan to save this society from its own demise, and by God do we need it soon.
Image - http://www.csmonitor.com/World/2012/0612/Rio-20-megacities-strive-to-survive-and-thrive-video