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 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 94.

    #93 thefrogstar

    We could do with some sophisticated solutions to the triple problem rolling towards us.

    Extending western lifestyles across the whole planet is not going to be viable, given the limited resource and environmental capital we have left.

    I would agree with you about the Luddites and CwRs.
    Reverting to a pastoral lifestyle would starve too much of the world's population.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    I'll tell you what gives me hope for your grandchildren, Entropic man:

    Another billion+ Chinese, Indians etc, who enjoy our standard of living, decreasing birth-rates, & a better science education, busily engineering future technology and prosperity that allows us to choose what to conserve.

    It has already started. It won't stop.

    Luddites and Cider-with-Rosie types won't help us get there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    so you accept the UNFCCC should not be immune for prosecution?

    if so, then you could have said that 2 hours ago I could have gone to the pub and avoided a lot of pointless argument

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    #90 Mango Chutney
    "if the UNFCCC don't break the law then they won't be taken to court, if they do, they will."

    Thank you! If you'd said that 2 hours ago I could have gone to the pub and avoided a lot of pointless argument.
    Still time for a pint.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    if the UNFCCC don't break the law then they won't be taken to court, if they do, they will.

    why should the UNFCCC be immune from prosecution?

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Read my #87

    I ask you again. Convince me that your fellow travellers would allow the UNFCCC to carry out its function without legalistic impediment?
    We need a legal framework in which UNFCCC can be held to account where necessary, while avoiding attemprts by lawyers to sabotage its functioning.
    Anyone else out there have useful suggestions?

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    the UNFCCC should be subject to the same laws as everybody else, as should the UN or do you think they are a special case?

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    I regard the UNFCCC as an important tool for maximising the survival chances of 10 billion people to come.
    I would prefer UNFCCC to be subject to law like the rest of us.
    I am also concerned that it would then be significantly impeded by the legalistic tactics of your fellow travellers.
    If you want me to oppose immunity, convince me that UNFCCC would not be impeded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    so you think granting the UNFCCC immunity from prosecution for crimes that they may commit gives you more hope than anything else? Ask the victims of crimes by other UN bodies if the agree with you

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    "you want to put the fox in charge of the chickens"

    I want my grandchildren to live a full life, without having to cope with the triple disaster that most future analysts see looming.
    On the evidence I have available, people like Rio+20 and UNFCCC give me more hope than your own philosophy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    #81 thefrogstar
    "That is a great advert for more lawyers."

    Lawyers are people. Some help society to function, others are motivated by belief or money to use the legal system to benefit one group at the expense of the rest.
    I would regard the "inventive lawyer" in my #77 as one of the latter. You might regard him as a benefactor of mankind

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    @79 you want to put the fox in charge of the chickens

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    #80 Gort2012
    With 192 national governments involved, getting any consensus would be like herding cats.
    This is not helped by two of the biggest, the US and China, dragging their feet for idealogical reasons.
    UNFCCC,etc, are likely to be hamstrung by legal and political bickering.
    Hopefully Rio+20 and its like will give us an opportunity to drag ourselves out of the incident pit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    "An inventive lawyer could use national aviation fuel tax exemptions or "undue restraint of trade" to tie up any attempt to limit bunker fuel usage in court for decades."

    -That is a great advert for more lawyers. Greenpeace and their ilk have a history of taking lawlessness to sea when they couldn't get their way on land. Now they want impose their will in the skies as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    I have come to the conclusion that no government is capable of acting on climate change.

    Politicians are too scientifically weak, too easily influenced by lobbyist and will never do what the world needs.

    It is time the enlightened started planning solutions that actively bypass governments by exploiting technologies which governments ignore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I'm having trouble deciphering #78. Could you rephrase it as a succinct, rational response, instead of a diatribe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    so to justify immunity from prosecution for an unelected organization responsible for managing a global cap-and-trade system worth billions of dollars for carbon emissions projects around the world, you cite an article by said unelected organization responsible for managing a global cap-and-trade system worth billions of dollars for carbon emissions projects around the world justifying CO2 control

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    #75 MangoChutney

    If you insist.
    Try due process rights. One aim of UNFCCC is to control bunker fuel usage.

    An inventive lawyer could use national aviation fuel tax exemptions or "undue restraint of trade" to tie up any attempt to limit bunker fuel usage in court for decades.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    @70 they want to manage $100b per year with immunity from prosecution. Is it just possible that some corruption and misappropriation of funds may occur?

    "violations of the due process rights of those affected by UNFCCC actions"

    who's rights are they planning on violating?

    "making decisions or actions that are beyond the legal mandate of the organization or its subsidiaries."

    say what?

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    the article specfically mentions climate change, therefore no sidetracking is taking place


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