The Rio+20 sustainability summit may be looking more and more like a big bust but greenies have not given up on it yet, writes Peter Hulm.

The leaders of IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the world’s major grouping of scientific conservationists, say the conference can count itself a success if — as they hope and expect — individual nations will make concrete commitments to line themselves up with the conventions that came out of Rio 1992 — on protecting nature’s diversity, forests and the oceans. So far, though, the big themes of the 2012 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development — greening economies and an institutional framework for environmental action — seem a long way from producing anything like the 1992 consensus.

Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says progress is “painfully slow”. “There is some scepticism about whether this conference will be a success, Ban told journalists on 24 May.

Some nations see the “green economy” label as a way for richer countries to hold back development in poor states, while others suspect the United Nations Environment Programme’s initiative is just a way to treat nature as a series of commodities: ‘what’s good for business is good for nature’. As for the institutional framework, creating a separate organization for sustainable development, as a few rich nations have proposed, is seen as U.N. empire-building with the same contradictory ambitions as for the green economy. The U.S. is still saying it hasn’t decided who will represent it at the “summit”. Not a great show of confidence.

Nevertheless, Ban, in typical U.N. fashion, is taking the high-flown rhetorical road. He wrote in The New York Times on 23 May: “Rio offers a generational opportunity to hit the reset button: to set a new course toward a future that balances the economic, social and environmental dimensions of prosperity and human well-being. More than 130 heads of state and government will be there, joined by an estimated 50,000 business leaders, mayors, activists and investors – a global coalition for change.”

For those with memories of Hillary Clinton’s “reset button” gaffe towards Russia in 2009 (certainly they include Hillary), Ban’s choice of words were unfortunate. Not a good move to remind the U.S. Secretary of State of perhaps her most embarrassing moment just before asking Washington to pull the U.N. out of a bogged-down international “vanity” event. Whatever can his speechwriters have been thinking?

In fact, Ban can hardly have meant what he said: we don’t need to scrap all the world’s previous agreements, and that won’t happen in Rio. Doomsday wishful thinking may be popular in the U.S. right now, but not in the rest of the world. It may not be the best time to try to launch global initiatives** — hell, the European Union can’t even find enough solidarity to save Greece — but it is 20 years since a landmark conference, therefore the international community has to pretend it can do better.*

“Abort, retry, fail?”, familiar to any computer user, might have been a more appropriate slogan, but it would hardly have the same global resonance. Nevertheless, that’s what the Secretary General is doing, with his attempt to bring negotiators together for an extra session before 20 June. Environmentalists whose heads are not in the clouds would be happy to come away from Rio with more modest achievements. Cyriaque Sendashonga, the Global Director of Policy and Programme for IUCN, told journalists in Geneva on 24 May her organization hopes Rio+20 will be an “implementation conference” for countries to commit to the provisions of the environmental conventions agreed since 1992***.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General of IUCN, describes commitments to sustainable use of forest resources as “low-hanging fruit” for the government leaders to achieve some face saving success. Rwanda has recently promised to restore its degraded forests by 2030, and IUCN would like other countries to do the same at Rio+20. Oceans are another priority. The environmentalists hope to get support in Rio+20 for a protection agreement for the oceans to be appended to the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

UNEP’s Global Green Economy Initiative started from sound principles, notably to re-stimulate economies through a focus on sound environmental concepts, notably creating “green” jobs, better waste management, “green cities” and “green transport”, clean and efficient technologies and renewable energies. Since then it has been badmouthed by those who see no alternative except dirty development and those who want a “hands-off” attitude to nature (mainly “hands off” by the poor people who depend on it).

The world has been slow to embrace and agree upon the concept of the green economy due to a lack of clarity of what it really means,” Marton-Lefèvre pointed out in a statement.

That is (though she did not say it), the U.N. failed once again to do the consultation work needed to get agreement beforehand on what greening an economy involves. As a series of concrete proposals for ways to reduce our harmful impact on the environment, it carried some weight. As a grand plan, it is bound to arouse nothing but opposition somewhere down the line: either because of the ideology or because it seeks to tell others what to do.

The mantra of World Bank economist William Easterly for such efforts, whether labelled “End Poverty Now” or “structural adjustment”, is Big Plans always fail (“Big Plans will always fail to reach the beautiful goal” (**11). Sendashonga told the news conference that environmentalists no longer look to big treaties to drive sustainable development. “We are convinced that the bottom-up approach is more likely to shape things than the global.”

The conservationists see one major development since Rio 1992 that they can welcome: Rio+20 is titled a conference on sustainable development not, as in 1992, on environment and development. IUCN, which has U.N. observer status, defined sustainable development as early as 1981 in its World Conservation Strategy. The U.N. then adopted the term and promoted it widely.

Rio+20 shows the two concepts are no longer “in separate silos”, but its principles are still a long way from universal practice. “It’s time governments included nature in development strategies to ensure long-term results,” Marton-Lefèvre argues.

P.S. Don’t believe the Christian Science Monitor article on 7 June that asserts the 1972 Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome failed in predictions of impending gloom that “failed to pan out”.

In April 2012 Smithsonian magazine reported that Australian physicist Graham Turner found the predictions 40 years ago were frighteningly accurate. “Turner compared real-world data from 1970 to 2000 with the business-as-usual scenario. He found the predictions nearly matched the facts,” wrote Mark Strauss.

Take a look at this graph from Turner.

Read more: Looking Back on the Limits of Growth.


*I suspect they simply read a speech by Achim Steiner on 17 November 2011, who credited another unnamed writer with coining the term.

** I’ve been reading William Easterly’s “The White Man’s Burden” (2006) with pleasure, particularly its knockdown of the World Bank’s “structural adjustment” policies when he was working there. But, as a conservation friend once said to me, World Bank officials are always confessing they have made mistakes, but they never learn, except how to apologize.
*** Frank Biermann in Environment Magazine reports: “More than 900 treaties on environmental protection are in force, and ‘sustainable development’ has become a catchword that features on 32 million websites.”

Peter Hulm is a former editor of Crosslines Global Report. He has  also been a consultant for IUCN and for UNEP’s Global Green Economy Initiative. Hulm is a contributing editor to The Essential Edge.