Rio in 100 days: A consuming challenge

Pilot hydrogen power plant Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rio may result in a commitment to shift away from fossil fuels towards new energy technologies

For anyone still persuaded that the phrase "sustainable development" is deployed as a treehugger plot to prevent any development at all, the words of the UN's top climate official on Friday should act as something of a corrective.

Three billion people living on less than $2.50 a day. One billion with insufficient access to clean water; about 2.4 billion people without a decent energy source; 1.2 billion suffering from chronic hunger - all this, said UN climate convention (UNFCCC) chief Christiana Figueres at the Barbara Ward Lecture in London, is "morally unacceptable".

Despite the spectacular successes of nations such as China, Thailand, Malaysia and Brazil in raising living standards, and despite advances secured by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), there are many who would agree with Ms Figueres' summation.

And the reason why a climate change official would be discussing such matters?

Because climate change is one of the issues that threatens to exacerbate the situation - raising sea levels, increasing drought in drought-prone areas, reducing crop yields, and so on - a familiar list by now, I'd think, to anyone who follows these issues.

And the corollary: that however people are brought out of their various types of poverty, it mustn't be done in a way that worsens climate change or pushes any of the other planetary boundaries beyond stretching point, because that would in time cancel out the gains.

In short, it must be sustainable.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Christiana Figueres' criticisms of "business as usual" are shared by UN chief Ban Ki-moon

That's why Ms Figueres, self-described "daughter of a revolutionary", looked forward to this June's Rio+20 summit in Brazil as much as she looked back to last December's UNFCCC conference in South Africa.

It's now 100 days until the curtain lifts on the Rio+20 summit, so it's a good opportunity to take stock of preparations.

A few weeks back I went through the main points in the "zero draft" agreement penned for the summit; but bits of flesh have subsequently been put on the bones of that draft.

In particular, we're beginning to see an outline of what the proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs) might cover.

In a sense, these are the real meat of the summit, outlining in which ways governments hope global society will progress and develop without putting prospects for nature, and future generations of humans, at risk.

One of the discussion documents issued by the Rio+20 secretariat suggests seven areas on which its goals might focus:

  • green jobs, youth employment and social inclusion
  • energy access, efficiency and sustainability
  • food security and sustainable agriculture
  • water
  • sustainable cities
  • management of oceans, including fisheries
  • improved resilience and disaster preparedness

These are pretty sweeping, and capable of being interpreted in varying ways. Does the last-named include financial disasters, for example, bearing in mind that resilience of the global financial system is part of the summit's mandate?

Meanwhile, Colombia and Guatemala - undoubtedly with the backing of other governments - have put forward their own proposal which outlines eight key areas, such as combating poverty, changing consumption patterns, and enhancing energy security.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Campaigners hope for better ocean regulation after the Rio summit

To a large extent, this is a different way of cutting the same cake; the underlying issues are not going to change because you look at them through a different lens, to mix metaphors.

The goals themselves are very unlikely to be finalised at Rio. Instead, the idea is to look for agreement in principle on themes and agree a mandate to negotiate the goals over the following three years, neatly ending in 2015, the target year for most of the existing MDGs.

There are some common misconceptions about what setting goals like these is supposed to achieve.

Firstly, they're not mandatory targets such as those that emerged, for example, from the Montreal Protocol on phasing out CFCs.

It's not even certain that every government signing up will strive to meet them; there's no sanction if they choose not to.

What the targets do is allow governments and other players - businesses, civil society, academics, journalists - to monitor progress governments are making, and chivvy them to hurry up when necessary.

Just establishing ways to measure progress can be enough to facilitate it, by raising information and skill levels.

Also, comparing the rates of progress made in different countries allows people to analyse and detect factors that determine success or failure.

Of all the ideas for SDGs, a couple stick out as likely to prove particularly contentious.

One is regulation of the oceans. Even since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the reach of fishing fleets has extended further and deeper across the globe. Their activity on the high seas is pretty much unregulated.

A number of powerful fishing nations want to keep it this way. Others will want to block moves to restrict minerals exploitation.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Moving away from fossil fuels could have health and development benefits

The second is sustainable consumption. To some noses, the notion of changing patterns of consumption from above carries a distinct whiff of Big Brother, and is to be resisted on principle.

In London last week, Christiana Figueres was adamant that "business as usual" had to change if the poor were to eat and drink to a decent standard.

She quoted from Barbara Ward, founder of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), whose work combined advocating environmental protection and campaigning for overseas development aid, and in whose honour the annual lecture is named:

"This visionary woman once said: 'We live in an epoch in which the solid ground of our preconceived ideas shakes daily under our certain feet'. Already in the 1970s, Barbara knew that 'business-as-usual' no longer represented 'solid ground'."

However, the politics of going beyond "business as usual" are still formidable.

Even as Ms Figueres was speaking in London, EU ministers were wrangling over the bloc's goals on climate change and renewable energy in Brussels - a meeting that ended without agreement on strengthening carbon-cutting ambition, essentially because just one of the 27 nations there, Poland, did not want to.

When international political systems are based on consensus, those who hold a position against the prevailing tide are given power out of all proportion to the constituencies they represent - and that's even more true in the UN than in the EU.

And from the corporate sector, seven companies involved in aviation have written to European governments complaining about the recent inclusion of plane emissions in the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS).

They include British Airways, whose website carries the claim: "As part of our commitment to being environmental responsible [sic] we have been a long-standing supporter of emissions trading.

"This sits at the heart of our climate change policy as the most environmentally effective and economically efficient mechanism for addressing aviation's CO2 emissions."

All for carbon cutting in principle, then - but not if it might affect business as usual.

That, in a nutshell, is the challenge Ms Figueres has highlighted - and the challenge that will face those world leaders who have decided to go to Rio de Janeiro in 100 days' time.