Rio: So much to do, so little time

Kenyan woman collecting water The summit may see conflicts between aims to reduce poverty and make society more sustainable

Along with thousands of government delegates, activists, academics, business chiefs and other journalists I'm making my way this week to Rio de Janeiro.

The event is the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as Rio+20.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it a "once-in-a-generation opportunity to make real progress towards the sustainable economy of the future".

Other descriptions range from a "milestone opportunity" to cut poverty and protect the economy, an agenda laden with "greenwash" and a "farce".

It promises to be a busy time for all, especially for government negotiators.

Their job this week is to knock the draft text into a near-finished state, so ministers can come in next week, sign it off and head for the airport looking like they've accomplished something worthwhile.

Currently, the text is far from finished.

An extra negotiating session convened in New York that ended on 2 June has resulted in a document that is only about 20% agreed; and many of the divisions that remain are anything but trivial, resulting from fundamentally different views about how the world should be.

What makes things more complex is, as I've discussed before, the varied nature of the agenda, ranging from high seas protection to universal access to clean energy to corporate sustainability reporting.

The text as it existed at the end of that New York session fell into my hands last week (The Guardian has helpfully posted it).

It's riddled with brackets and phrases such as "Iceland delete; Nigeria retain", indicating that minds are a long way from meeting.

While many observers are concerned about the lack of progress, they're also concerned that the only way for everybody to get out of Rio on schedule will be to agree something completely anodyne.

As Jim Leape, head of WWF, put it recently: "We are facing two likely scenarios - an agreement so weak it is meaningless, or complete collapse. Neither of these options would give the world what it needs."

In terms of what various countries and blocs are pushing for and against, there are positions you probably wouldn't find that surprising.

The phrase "US delete" leaps out at the reader, so consistently does it appear - often in company with Canada - particularly on anything relating to "common but differentiated responsibilities", the phrase that basically means rich and poor countries both have an interest in solving something but have different roles to play.

The United States, of course, is concerned above all not to give anything to China.

But there are other US positions that ask broader questions. It doesn't want the text to endorse the 2C target for climate change (in which it is backed by Russia) or the principle that countries have a right to develop.

It is against the notion that each government must respect others' sovereign rights over their natural resources, and against the idea of committing to free the world from poverty and hunger - only "extreme" poverty and hunger should be included, it says.

Climate change art Some governments are concerned about climate change's impacts on food and water supplies

The G77/China group of 131 developing countries wants financial support. It wants western governments to re-commit to their target of giving at least 0.7% of their GDP in overseas aid - a promise that few are fulfilling.

It is against clauses that recognise corruption as a block to human progress, and those that commit to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.

It doesn't want the UN to establish a unit that would argue for the rights of future generations, and is blocking bits of text enshrining gender equality.

Rio summit jargon buster
Use the dropdown for easy-to-understand explanations of key terms:
Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS)
Granting countries the right to gain financially from the exploitation of biological resources discovered on their territory. Aims to prevent biopiracy. Agreement made at the UN CBC meeting in Nagoya, Japan in 2010. Rio+20 will see further discussion particularly of resources from international waters.

There's an almightily convoluted section of the text with more brackets than a home-made bookcase on reforming how the UN deals with sustainable development, which would involve somehow modifying the existing Commission on Sustainable Development.

And there are disagreements on the notion of sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The idea is for governments to agree in Rio on a process to draw up seven or eight goals that would improve things such as access to food and water while protecting the environment.

These would come into effect in 2015 when most of the existing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire.

The problem is that there is already a process up and running to agree further MDGs. Development agencies are deeply concerned that the core agenda of improving health and education, alleviating poverty and increasing access to water and sanitation may suffer as a result of having the SDGs as well.

And what of the rich? As I discussed a few weeks ago, does it make any sense to commit to increasing people's wealth and therefore consumption in poor societies without simultaneously working out how to curb over-consumption in countries that already have enough to go round, given that what we collectively consume has to come from the same single planet?

There's been talk of having something along these lines in the SDGs. But the phrase "US delete" stalks the paragraph.

So; a lot to be done in just three days of preparatory talks towards an agreement that the UN says should deliver The Future We Want.

I'll be doing my best to make sense of it for you.

Richard Black, Environment correspondent Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    I suspect that with such poor definition of what they're doing one of the outcomes will be to make any solutions to problems that don't buy into the specific worldview of the conference all the more difficult to implement and harder to research.

    I suspect that this is going to be another event that shows the difference between "greens" and "people who are concerned about the environment"

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Firemensaction @#28 "The climate change global agenda was not something ANY nations citizens had a democratic vote on"

    Democracy is the process of asking the dumb majority what they think then acting on it, the world is moving on from such administration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    A new disaster is that the UK nuclear industry are now planning to close down the Thorp reprocessing plant in 2018. - In this the anti-nuclear lobby are finally achieving one of their ultimate goals of leaving the world with thousands of tons of long term nuclear waste. - Which could have been recycled into useful fuel except for their anti-reprocessing campaign.

    Anti-Nuclear = Anti-Environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    What I want to know is why the Govt haven't taken up GE Hitachi's offer to build an Intergral Fast Reactor (IFR) & only charge us if it works on a commercial scale - if it did it'd use as fuel the left overs from fission plants & not only produce electricity but vastly reduce our toxic legacy to out children & grandchildren......

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Furthering my previous comments,@42

    My position is more than clear on this matter, however the reality is renewables are for the moment a must, all be it a very temporary measure that will only hold back development of real allternatives; as Plasma fussion, we will still need to burn fuel, for air, majority sea transport, trains & our construction / farming needs, as for nuclear NO THANK YOU!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    P3 - oops formatting error on P2!!

    I have done a lot more work on QC recently and already have a process that's starting to look semi practicable plus a few stats. The machine can burn CO2 as fuel and though only a tiny fraction will get converted, the side energy will be enough to crack a lot more. There's enough spare CO2 in the atmosphere to fuel the world by QC for the next billion + years..

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    40.Entropic man
    "that big yellow thing hasnt changed significantly since we started measuring its output"

    That is complete and utter nonsense, the Sun varies its output every millisecond - otherwise sun spots wouldnt exist, nor would solar ejections.

    Our orbit distance and angle of alignment with the sun varies aswell.

    Why no physical action from the IPCC ? They have the money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    P2 and where should that energy come from - todays low energy low efficiency fission plants - high energy high efficiency fission plants - fusion plants.. Space born solar, large scale geothermal. As an emergency measure even coal done by high efficiency gasification. Or my personal favourite - Atomic Conversion come 'Quantum Conversion'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    45.Robert Lucien
    "CO2 crackers simply turn CO2 into oxygen and carbon."

    AKA plants and plankton.

    Given the billions taken in Green Taxes I'd like to know why there isnt any sign of any action on the ground. Simple things like gettting arid regions to bloom.

    But I guess the money is better put to work in the pockets of the envirnmental scientists, organisations, charities and scams eh ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    #41, #43
    The engineers solution to Climate Change is to see it as a potential problem and devise strategies to avoid it or survive it.
    CO2 has the big feature that its one of the most significant factors that we can conceivably change. However I think the best solution is not less energy but more. Giant scale thermal-electrical CO2 crackers simply turn CO2 into oxygen and carbon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Didn't take long for some cognitively challenged alarmist to try to link the recent weather patterns in the UK to AGW, odd as they are the same weather patterns that followed the Normandy landings in 1944!
    Fix the environment and stop trying to play King Canute with natural climate cycles!

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    #41 Black_Pearl
    "I believed what was fed to me on the main media, but no longer"

    Good. Do not believe what you are fed, pro or anti. Research it for yourself. Look for radiative forcing, look for Arrhenius, the effects of CO2, water vapour and methane. Examine the three 20th century temperature records, the SOHO solar constant..
    Try some calculations as I did.
    Then make up your own mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Ok firstly Carbon dioxide is not the main concern here, the biggest threat is C4H10 (methane) release from permafrost and ice, both on land and submerged. If the planet continues to warm C4H10 which is 100 times worse than Co2 will accelerate the effect of global warming, like a Eurofighter taking of, be it man created, or part of the natural cycle of the planet, we must do try and do something.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    RE 40.
    Weather & climate are far more complex than just C02 levels.
    Is it man increasing C02 levels or is it the star of our solar system that exerts the greatest influence via flares etc. allowing more C02 to be absorbed into the air
    Initially I believed what was fed to me on the main media, but no longer.
    Co2 on its own is a taxation event.
    Where would Govts be without it ... even more BUST

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Better to try and fail at Rio. than to fold your hands and regard disaster as inevitable.

    As for the climate, that big yellow thing hasnt changed significantly since we started measuring its output, while global warming measures out at 0.6C since 1950.
    Apply the Arrhenius calculation to the 20% increase in CO2 since 1950 and you get a much better match.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    38.Entropic man
    Affluence works better, as better educated, healthier, wealthier people have fewer children.
    Unfortunately they also use more resources and produce more CO2.
    Rio+20 is going to find it difficult to square this particular circle.
    Exactly impossible task
    There will always be the haves & have nots.
    Oh & C02 does not drive the temp of the planet
    Its that big yellow thing

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    #37 Black_Pearl
    "Whats needed is to bomb the countrys who have unsustainable runaway population growth with condoms.!"

    Affluence works better, as better educated, healthier, wealthier people have fewer children.
    Unfortunately they also use more resources and produce more CO2.
    Rio+20 is going to find it difficult to square this particular circle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    27.Entropic man

    "Think how beesaman will feel when climate change becomes impossible to ignore ! "
    Yes the climate changes apparently its going to get colder by many non Govt funded forcasters.

    Whats needed is to bomb the countrys who have unsustainable runaway population growth with condoms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    #35 Black-Pearl
    "A 4 month period of temp means nothing."

    If the Daily Mail's report is right , make that 5 months and counting.
    I agree that it's only weather, but weather patterns become climate.
    While the optimist in me would like to agree with you, the pessimist sees enough straws in the wind to be pretty sure that the stack's on fire.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    32.Entropic man
    The United States mean temperature during January–April was 7.4°C (45.4°F), which is 3.0°C (5.4°F) above the long-term average and the warmest such period since national records began in 1895.

    This is from the American government's own NOAA, their latest climate report. Anyone else enjoying the irony?
    A 4 month period of temp means nothing.


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