Rio +20 Report: From the fault Lines of the Green Economy

The Rio+20 Conference has been and gone and overall there have been many reports on the meeting expressing disappointment at the failing of governments to chart out a bold new plan for the "Future we Want." This section provides reports from a range of CEESP members who participated in various activities within the hectic Rio+20 calendar of events. 

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Rio +20 Report: From the fault Lines of the Green Economy

By now many of you will have read reports coming out of Rio+20 that characterize it as a failure. To fail, however, is always relative to the definition of success, and given the focus of Rio+20 on laying the groundwork for the production of a so-called ‘Green Economy’, failure might not be such a bad outcome. If only it could have failed without the sheer waste of resources that went into convening the event. It’s difficult to imagine a more energy intensive gathering than what was experienced in Rio – the primary meeting venues hours from accommodation on traffic congested roads with little hope of using public transit to get to the site. And when you did arrive, the pain of seeing large open-sided buildings fed by massive air conditioning units with no attempt to enclose the cooled air. The NGO tent in particular off-gassed toxic chemicals that forced many to avoid events there. Never mind having to run the gauntlet of gun-toting late teenage soldiers who surrounded the venue. Let’s hope this is not a harbinger of the Green Economy.

This report is not meant to be a play-by-play description of Rio+20 activities. And it is certainly not a reflection of the insights of the various CEESP members present in Rio. CEESP did have a strong presence, and it was encouraging running into familiar faces around the Congress. I’m sure that others have interpretations of what unfolded in Rio and it would be useful to have a debrief on these, perhaps in Jeju, partially because what is broadly condemned as a failure at Rio speaks volumes about the value of the work done by CEESP members. This is also written from my role as a member of a team involved in researching transformations on global environmental governance from an ethnographic perspective. This group includes a number of CEESP members. Those present in Rio included Lisa Campbell, Noella Gray.

In many ways the writing was on the wall from the outset. The prep com meetings in New York closed with only about 25% of a final text agreed on, leaving many of the contentious items to be dealt with in Rio. With only one week to produce agreement before the summit there was no chance that the remaining 75% would be completed. This set up a chain of events in Rio which saw negotiations stall, (particularly around issues of ‘the green economy’, energy, and the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development) and the Brazilian hosts step in to take control of a conflicted process to put forward a what was termed a ‘compromise document’. While this move has been interpreted in the media as an attempt to save face and avoid the embarrassment of repeating the debacle that marked the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, others had a more nuanced take. In the words of one experienced negotiator, “I haven’t seen anything like this in over 25 years of negotiating”. Some even suggested that this had been the intention from the outset as Brazil had not been actively pushing a completion of the text in New York, forcing both a shift in the dates of the summit and a last minute prep-com meeting in Rio. In Rio it quickly became clear that negotiations were not moving the text forward. A halt was called to negotiations; the Brazilians took the text, explained that they would produce a draft text and according to one negotiator, released a draft to the media before they actually returned it to negotiators. By the time negotiators received the text, partially because of the atrocious wireless connection at this ‘paperless’ meeting, they had 15 minutes digest the text before briefing their Ministers. This certainly had the effect of suppressing potential resistance. That said, many people, from representatives of progressive NGOs to conservative delegates, commended the document as a great compromise. It had in it, almost everyone’s key issues. We also heard innumerable references to and expresses of clear respect for the talent of the Brazilian foreign service and negotiators.

In the resulting document, Brazil had eliminated any bracketed text, removing the conflict and the contestation. While it’s been reported that this produced a next to meaningless document, it’s important to note that the document was fairly meaningless, even with brackets, before the Brazilians took it on. But removing the conflict in text does not remove the conflict. It simply delegitimizes the process. What was left and what the parties agreed on was a text that not only makes no progress beyond what was signed at the 1992 Earth Summit, but can actually be seen as regressive. It produced no major agreements to implement the kinds of initiatives that many of us believe are needed to address both social and ecological marginalization and it actually rolled back women’s rights as the Vatican and others successfully lobbied for the removal of a phrase that called “access to reproductive health services” an important element of women’s empowerment.

The document did include Sustainable Development Goals with some players pronouncing these as the most tangible outcome of the meeting. But these lie buried in the outcome document and will now sit in a General Assembly process to be developed by an ‘open working group’ and aligned with the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. The danger here is apparent – that a very real sense of what we might call “Goal fatigue” is setting in – a problem that arises from the international negotiating system continually setting and continually failing to meet goals. This lays the groundwork for cynicism both on the part of people watching the process who come to question its legitimacy, and on the part of those who continue to participate in the process of negotiations while having no intention of letting that process effectively address the problems it claims to be addressing.

Despite these apparent failures there is a subtext, or perhaps a sub-politics, here that is more hopeful. For in its weakness, the document hides the strength of an opposition that was apparent during the negotiating sessions. That primary strength was that the summit was not able to force through an infrastructural framework to implement “The Green Economy.” Any attempt to establish definitions, or set targets and timetables was effectively challenged by the G77, led primarily by India. However, the disturbing sidebar here is that the resistance was not so much focused on a warranted suspicion of the extension of enclosure s (land-grabs) or the implementation of so-called market mechanisms as the basis for environmental protection, but a fear that established targets could also set up a structure of sanctions that could be used to penalize states for failing to meet them. It’s not that many of the G77 countries are necessarily suspicious of ‘the Green Economy’; it’s that they are suspicious of those who seek to set the terms under which it will be produced, including conditions structuring the transfer of funds and technology from high to low income countries. The outcome documents says as much when it states that each country will move at its own pace.

The Green Economy cluster saw parties jockeying for position in the negotiation of the text with a persistent effort, primarily on the part of the US, supported in part by the EU to remove the language of sovereignty and rights from the original Rio text. This was effectively challenged by India and others who pushed back forcefully and effectively to protect that language. While this push back was partially about escaping any restrictive conditionalities that might be attached to mechanisms associated with a Green Economy, the rights language was also about avoiding obligation on the part of the parties (i.e., US and Canada) to provide basic services to their populations (i.e., the right to water).

This move to jettison the protections of the 1992 text corresponds with other regressive positions on rights. For example, while the US opposed the removal the of the reproductive rights text, it successfully backed an effort to remove text that reaffirmed the responsibility of business to respect universal human rights, leaving Hillary Clinton free to speak of what she called the growing “power of the market” in spreading development and raising millions of people out of poverty. Again interpretation of these negotiating tactics is problematic but positioning what was happening at Rio in relation to what we know of ‘the Green Economy” so far is not. The Green Economy as it is manifest so far involves substantive efforts at new forms of enclosure – using conservation or environmental well-being to justify the enclosure of lands historically used to sustain livelihoods and to facilitate promotion of market-based mechanisms (and they do speak of ‘the market’ as if this is a unified entity) as the primary means for that protection. Although there was tremendous push by the G77 for discussion of green economies at Rio+20, evidence-based critiques of these mechanisms are beginning to mount, and it is clear that many of the actors promoting these practices are willfully blind to or naively ignorant of the ways in which ‘economic rationales’ can translate into material practices that deprive people of their lands and livelihoods. But the primary question arising from these negotiations is what does the removal of text protecting rights and sovereignty accomplish – and one possible answer is that it smoothes the way for private interests and finance capital to use environmental protection as a rationale for new forms of enclosure and the development of new ‘environmental financial services’ that can be traded on an ‘open market’. It essentially removes the institutional barriers that had provided people and their livelihoods with at least minimal protection from the damaging effects of market exchange.

What was even more striking was the degree to which most, if not all, NGOs participating in the official venue had aligned their activities with the objectives of the meeting, adopting the rhetoric of the Green Economy and structuring side events around it. While some official delegates and certainly indigenous peoples and groups participating in the People’s summit voiced suspicion of some vaguely construed notion of a “Green Economy” this was not apparent in most side events, whose sponsors seemed to accept the concept as a given. Again this is likely a function of organizations tailoring their events to the professed objectives of the meeting and seeking to position themselves as formative actors in putting the green economy into practice. But it also speaks to the effect that the change in the structure of environmental governance has had over the past 20 years. As the Rio conventions reflect state interests and direct state resources in line with their program of work and as most NGOs are continually starved of the cash to do their work they get in line both for material resources and for institutional legitimacy. Of course there were exceptions to this. For example, a session on fiscal reform which effectively addressed the ways in which wealthy states could engage in progressive taxation in ways that confront some environmental problems, while refusing to cede their regulatory authority.

But perhaps the primary indication of the futility of the entire Rio exercise was the fact that the incredibly weak statement in the final document was accompanied by a total lack of commitment to funding. Not surprisingly, when it came down to putting down some dollars or Euros, no one was willing to talk targets – neither of how much nor by when. Without a commitment to funding, it’s not surprising that the G77 was suspicious of the shift toward the rhetoric of the Green Economy – which basically means the nature that will be conserved is the nature that can provide the revenue to pay for its own conservation.

While negotiations stalled at Rio Centro, there was a parallel meeting happening elsewhere in Rio. The Corporate Sustainability Forum was sponsored by the UN Global Compact and brought together members of the Compact, for 3 days, to laud and congratulate themselves on what they seemed to think was an enlightened attitude toward environmental concerns. Notably, however, only a handful of the participants at the corporate forum bothered to travel to Rio Centro or stayed on after the forum to attend the Summit.

The rhetoric surrounding business engagement was striking as business actors represented themselves as historically reluctant to engage in the political process but realizing that they need to come around, engage in ‘the debate’ and move forward to create ‘green growth.’ Words like courage, bravery, responsibility, and foresight were piled on to corporate representatives by senior UN staff. Business – reluctant to engage in politics? Given the role of business and industry in establishing the structure of contemporary political decision-making and in contributing to the environmental problems we now confront, it’s difficult to take people seriously when they make remarks like this. And yet similar phrases filled the sessions during the forum most of which displayed an astounding lack of sophistication, critical thought or grounded empiricism in their assessment of environmental problems. And they were supported in this by a host of senior UN staff, who contributed to a strong impression that the UN has put much more effort into mobilizing a series of corporate initiatives than it has into mobilizing state engagement and developing effective regulatory practice that might actually coherently address the complexity and diversity of the environmental problems we confront.

The Corporate Sustainability forum was also a venue in which we could see a Green Economy script developing as a number of NGO and UN actors claimed that corporations are stepping up to fill the ‘commitment void’ left by states. This is not naiveté. It is cynicism at its best. It reproduces the notion of some antagonistic division between government, Business and NGOs as if these categories of have some firewall that separates them. And it effectively ignores the shifting organizational terrain that has emerged over the past 20 years in which the positions of states and the corporate sector are worked out in tandem and in which the integration of NGOs and the private sector has become near universal. Any ‘void’ left by states is created with the full expectation and intent that it will be filled by the private sector and state negotiating positions are developed with that in mind. This is no stepping up. This is the operation of tactics in the production of the Green Economy. And, UNEP, not surprisingly was consistently seeking to put a spin on the meeting that supports the massive ideological and material investment of UNEP in the concept of the Green Economy. Achim Stenier, in his closing remarks, had this to say: "World leaders and governments have today agreed that a transition to a green economy – backed by strong social provisions – offers a key pathway towards a sustainable 21st century." A more accurate assessment was likely put forward by Tim Wirth a former US senator and now the head of Ted Turner’s UN Foundation: "Public-private partnerships are the dominant theme here in Rio, … The official document is less important."

And this was clearly the take of most corporate participants in Rio. They are moving ahead and defining what a ‘green economy’ means for them, and delineating what constitutes ’green growth’ and how it will be measured. In many ways the attempt at reaching consensus is foreign to people who speak the language of competition. And this does not bode well for the future of democratic or participatory environmental governance.
If there was a voice of resistance at Rio+20, it came – like it did on 1992 – from indigenous people’s, most cogently in the International Declaration of Indigenous People on Sustainable Development and Self-Determination, signed by over 70 indigenous peoples’ organizations, networks and federations. The declaration put forward five key themes: culture as a fundamental dimension of sustainable development; full exercise of our human and collective rights; strengthening diverse local economies and territorial management; within and among indigenous communities, peoples and nations; regarding actions of states and corporations; and at the United Nations.

The “People's Summit at Rio+20 for Social and Environmental Justice, against commodification of life and in defense of the commons” was another important site for challenging what was unfolding in Rio Centro and putting forward alternative pats to an ecologically and socially secure future. But the 2012 version of the people’s summit was a faint shadow of the 1992 version. The actors carried as much spirit. Protests were loud and large. But they were so physically separated (over 2 hours travel time in each direction) from the main negotiating venue that they could be and were virtually ignored. The ability to ignore alternative voices, ironically, also reflects the fact that many people, groups and organizations that were on the street in 1992 were not inside ‘the big tent’. The major groups structure put in place by the UN ostensibly to facilitate participation had diminished their presence on the streets.

If Rio+20 delivered a message it is this – the international negotiating system, at least in relation to environmental problems is next to bankrupt. States, with the exception of a few – like Denmark - do not take commitments to sustainability seriously. And diplomats are unable to operate outside of the bounds set by their taskmasters, who are disengaged from the substance of global environmental issues and/or specificity of local environmental challenges. Rather than confront demonstrated problems and defend their historical responsibility to develop and establish the regulatory mechanisms required to protect their most vulnerable constituents – including nature – they cede that responsibility to the interests of ‘new partners’ – corporate actors and support the efforts of transnational institutions like the UN in privileging the interests of those actors. It is sad to witness this kind of moral bankruptcy in action.

But another message that emerges loudly from Rio+20 is the importance of the work that CEESP members do. Good, empirically-grounded, critical work that continues to address the problems that people face in the places in which they live. Work that continues to identify injustice and seeks out the means, whether through policy or practice, to address it. And work that continues to pick apart the rhetoric that emerges from sites like Rio+20 and tries to make it confront configurations of power and the effect they have on the world around us.
While many argue that we are in a post-neoliberal era, the Rio+20 conference indicates otherwise. Accompanying the rise of non-state actors in global environmental governance is an abdication of state responsibility. Instead of binding commitments, Rio+20 parties endorsed a compendium of commitments, proposed by Washington, D.C.-based NGOs, which entailed an online registry of voluntary commitments made at Rio+20. The initiative builds on the embrace at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development of 266 public-private partnerships, which were presented as a way to get around stalled government negotiations. The refusal of many governments to make binding commitments and the embrace instead of the compendium shifts the locus and the responsibility for governance away from states and toward private sector interests. Just as the UNCED conference marked a critical historical moment in which the environment became enlisted in the expansion of capitalism, Rio+20 marks a critical moment in which governments have abdicated responsibility for the protection of the planet, instead shifting it to the private sector and NGOs. At the same time, while some may speak of the post-neoliberal era, the neoliberal dismantling of the state and social protections remains alive and well in the environmental arena, where it has been embraced.

Ken MacDonald (University of Toronto)
Catherine Corson (Mt Holyoke College) 

Work area: 
Social Policy
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