It has been a long summer of commitments: two summit-level meetings in two weeks saw world leaders make significant statements on a wide array of concerns facing humanity. The annual meeting of the G-20 leaders held in the Mexican resort town of Los Cabos preceded the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as Rio+20. While the former, as has been the practice, focused largely on an agenda of issues that needed immediate attention, the latter had more of a generational perspective, having been seen as an event that was looking back on the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the Earth Summit, held two decades back.
In keeping with the times, the Los Cabos G-20 Summit had given itself a tinge of “green”. Besides the usual focus on issues that relate to getting the global economy back on rails, the Mexican presidency had included “inclusive green growth” as a prominent item on the agenda. The concept of “green growth” has been somewhat of an oxymoron, for the “green” agenda has often brought with it the agenda of trade protectionism. In recent years, there has been a surfeit of cases in which “green” protectionism has either directly or indirectly become a scourge for the open-trading regime.
The more acute challenge, particularly for countries with inadequate resource endowments, is to meet “green economy” norms. This is where the problems begin, for there is no agreement on what the norms should be, and whether these are to be imposed/adopted globally. The confabulations on climate change provide a peek into how formidable the norm-setting and implementation of one component of the “green economy” could be. While the advanced countries have been intent on imposing norms for emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, developing countries have found themselves in a bind, for they lack both financial strength and access to carbon-abatement technologies that can help them graduate to a low-carbon pathway. Multilateral negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were expected to find solutions for delivering this critical global public good, but have failed to do so. There can only be informed guesses as to whether a plurilateral process such as the G-20 can provide an effective substitute for the UNFCCC processes.
A key question that arises here is whether processes such as the G-20 can of their own accord deliver on commitments that the leaders have been making annually. It would appear that without the backing of the multilateral institutions, a forum such as the G-20 would lose much of its effectiveness. In other words, the processes initiated by the G-20 and those by the multilateral institutions must complement each other, with the latter set of institutions taking the political direction provided by leaders of the most prominent economies to set their priorities.
It is by now clear that the multilateral institutions are getting reduced to forums that periodically generate a menu of best intentions. This has once again become evident from the outcome document of the Rio+20 summit. The summit produced a 53-page charter of best intentions, many of which hark back to the Earth Summit. But while Agenda 21 agreed to in 1992 and the 2002 plan of implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development had raised expectations of the global community working together to save the planet from environmental catastrophe, the experience of implementing these commitments brought home the rather disturbing realization that the global environment and development agenda is hostage to the narrow national interests of the dominant powers. If national priorities were subsumed in the global agenda for action two decades back, in the intervening decades, the clock has been turned back.
The wheel seems to have turned back on the substantial agenda as well. Whereas the Earth Summit had identified the specific areas of action, which were required to address the environment and development conundrum, Rio+20 has a broader focus. The major contributing factor in this regard is the programme of action agreed to at the summit on the “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”. According to the Rio+20 outcome document, this programme would “contribute to eradicating poverty as well as sustained economic growth, enhancing social inclusion, improving human welfare and creating opportunities for employment and decent work for all, while maintaining the healthy functioning of the Earth’s ecosystems”. Each country is to “consider the implementation of green economy policies in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, in a manner that endeavours to drive sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth and job creation, particularly for women, youth and the poor”.
These are clear indications that the stage is being set for the adoption of sustainable development goals, which many think will replace the millennium development goals after 2015. But, as the global community embarks on the new road of sustainable development, it needs to be asked whether the Rio+20 commitments will be able to bridge the trust deficit that has emerged in all environmental negotiations. For herein lies the roadblock to sustainability.
Biswajit Dhar is director general at Research and Information System for Developing Countries, New Delhi.
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