20-year Roundtrip to Rio

Anyone expecting big things of Rio+20 is probably putting hope before experience.

Twenty years ago, the original Rio Earth Summit (UN Conference on Environment and Development) was preceded by over two years of preparatory work and meetings by politicians and non-governmental organisations, and expectations had been for binding targets and firm commitments of funds.

When the delegates from 180 countries arrived for their 12 days in Rio, accompanied by a 9,000 strong press corps, there was still some maneuvering to be done before the final wording of agreements would be decided and signatures appended.

The semi-detached stance of the USA and its President, George Bush senior, and the inevitable horse-trading between different vested interests, saw a watering down of proposals to the extent that the outcome was one of aspirations rather than commitments. It left its organisers and many countries, especially in Europe and the South, bitterly disappointed at the lack of progress.

On climate change, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in particular, the European Community (yet to be relabeled a Union) and its Environment Commissioner Carlo Ripa di Meana had sought to take a lead in the North, with plans for a carbon/energy tax and other measures to reduce CO2 emissions. However, the price of getting George Bush to Rio – brokered by the UK Government – had been the undermining of the treaty on climate change, removing CO2 reduction commitments. This was too much for Ripa di Meana who decided to stay away, stating “everything has been fixed in advance”.

Rio Earth Summit 1992

By the end of the conference, the urgent need for some progress, any progress, meant that securing signatures came at the cost of binding measures and hard cash.

Adopted by consensus (without vote) by the conference were:

  • the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, a statement of 27 legally non-binding principles designed to commit governments to ensure environmental protection and responsible development;
  • Agenda 21, an international plan of action to sustainable development – a non-binding yardstick for government measures on all aspects of the environment for the next century; and
  • a Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests.

The  climate change treaty was also signed by more than 150 of the 178 countries represented, but Bush’s moniker required the removal of both timetables and targets for cuts in pollution.

Overpopulation, which was expected to be a crucial area for discussion, was not even up for debate; the whole matter had been quietly dropped from proceedings.

Twenty years later

Even now, twenty years on and with 1.5 billion more people on our planet, it’s difficult to judge the Earth Summit; were its limited achievements enough of a first step? We won’t know the answer to that for some time yet.

At the start of this year, in preparation for Rio+20, the UN published a progress report, Review of implementation of Agenda 21 and the Rio Principles.

The report makes a case for the Earth Summit’s successes:

Rio not only produced Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration, it also produced international law instruments that dealt with specific sector issues, such as the Forest Principles, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Furthermore, Rio also caused the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement. As an event it is one of the most important examples of the delivery of international law, both hard and soft, that the UN has managed in its history.”

However, it also admits to abject failure in achieving real progress:

Despite this well-meaning deal, reality has fallen considerable short of ambition. Significantly developed countries did not curb their consumption patterns and failed to find sustainable development path built on sustainable production methods. As a result, pressure on the global environment continued to rise since 1992. Specifically, despite continued intergovernmental process (e.g. climate change talks and further Earth Summits) little progress has been made toward implementation of the deal. Most recently an international agreement on climate change has all but stalled.”

Will Rio+20 achieve more than its predecessor?

So far, it’s not looking good.

On 24 May, with less than a month to go, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon admitted preparatory negotiations were “painfully slow” as additional talks were scheduled for 29 May to 2 June.

And in the separate but related UN Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in Bonn, 15-25 May, aimed at extending the Kyoto protocol – currently the world’s only legally binding treaty on emissions cuts – beyond 2012 broke down in “discord and disappointment”, as The Guardian put it.

Just two weeks before Rio+20, countries have still failed to agree on a draft text for sustainable development goals and definition of key objectives including the green economy. WWF has warned that Rio+20 could collapse.

Scotland’s contribution to Sustainable Development

In 2002, the halfway point in the roundtrip to Rio, we had the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Scotland now had its own Parliament and The Scottish Executive produced a progress report, Sustainable Development in Scotland – Rio, Johannesburg and Beyond, which concluded:

Since the Rio Summit in 1992 a range of actions have been taken to make progress in Scotland on sustainable development. Governments (both the UK Government and the Scottish Executive) have been at the heart of this but major contributions have also been made by business, local authorities, NGOs and trade unions. There is a general recognition amongst all these organisations that, whatever has gone before, more needs to be done if we are to meet the challenges of sustainable development.”

The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009

In a key commitment to “reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to a low carbon economy”, the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill was passed unanimously by members of the Scottish Parliament on June 24, 2009.

The Act creates a statutory framework for greenhouse gas emissions reductions in Scotland by setting an interim 42 per cent reduction target for 2020 and an 80 per cent reduction target for 2050.

To help ensure the delivery of these targets, the Act also:

  • requires that the Scottish Ministers set annual targets, in secondary legislation, for Scottish emissions from 2010 to 2050;
  • places duties on the Scottish Ministers requiring that they report regularly to the Scottish Parliament on Scotland’s emissions and on the progress being made towards meeting the emissions reduction targets set in the Act;
  • places climate change duties on Scottish public bodies and contains powers to enable the Scottish Ministers, by order, to impose further duties on public bodies in relation to climate change;
  • includes other provisions on climate change, including adaptation, forestry, energy efficiency and waste reduction;
  • includes commitments on Public engagement; and
  • includes provision on carbon assessment.

Scotland’s Climate Justice Fund

On 31 May 2012, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, joined First Minister Alex Salmond to launch Scotland’s Climate Justice Fund and called for other countries to share Scotland’s ambition on climate change – by both reducing their carbon emissions and implementing climate justice.

Climate justice is a response to the injustice that the world’s poorest communities, who have done least to cause climate change, are bearing the brunt of its impact, due to increasingly erratic weather patterns and more climate-related disasters such as floods and droughts.

The Scottish Government is providing £3 million for the fund – one million per year for the next three years – which will support water projects in Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia – increasing communities’ resilience to the impacts of climate change.

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