Looming U.N. Mega-Conference in Rio to Seek ‘More Sustainable Future’

May 15, 2012 - 3:16 AM

Rio conference

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Sha Zukang, secretary-general of the June 2012 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), take part in a preparatory event in New York last November. (UN Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

(CNSNews.com) – Twenty years after a U.N. gathering in Rio de Janeiro hiked environmental concerns higher up the global agenda and laid the early groundwork for the Kyoto Protocol, tens of thousands of U.N. officials, government representatives and activists will head back to the Brazilian city this summer in an attempt to advance the “sustainability” cause.

In what the world body’s Division for Sustainable Development says will be the biggest conference ever organized by the U.N., some 135 heads of state and government (or their deputies) have committed to attend the June 20-22 Conference on Sustainable Development, dubbed “Rio+20.”

President Obama at this stage is not expected to attend, although he and visiting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff agreed in a joint statement last month on “the importance of broad participation in the high-level segment of the conference.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has characterized Obama’s presence as “crucial.” Organizers had timed Rio+20 to follow on from a G20 summit in Mexico, in the hope this would smooth the way for leaders like Obama to attend by pairing up two events in one trip abroad.

But with his re-election campaign in full swing, the president is unlikely to want to attend what promises to be a politically-sensitive event.

Besides, green issues are a relatively low priority for U.S. voters: In a Pew poll last January, out of 30 possible issues respondents want the president and Congress to address, 43 percent picked “protecting the environment” (down 14 points in five years) and 25 percent chose “dealing with global warming” (down 13 points). Much greater priority was given to improving the economy (86 percent), jobs (82 percent) and reducing the budget deficit (60 percent).

Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have also declined invitations to Rio, according to their governments.

But more than 50,000 people are expected to attend the gathering, which will target issues like poverty eradication, energy, food security, access to water, “unsustainable” consumption and climate change, and aim to produce an “action-oriented” outcome document promoting a “more sustainable future.”

A U.N. preparatory committee is working on whittling down thousands of pages of submissions from governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to a manageable size. Two weeks of recent negotiations failed to do so and will now be following by a previously unscheduled five-day session at the end of this month.

The conference secretary-general, Sha Zukang of China, says the hope is to have at least 90 percent of the text finalized by the time the meeting opens in Rio, with the remaining – most sensitive – portions to be hammered out by participating world leaders.

Development-oriented NGOs are not optimistic.

“Nobody is clamoring for another business-as-usual summit of leaders,” Rubens Born of a group called the Forum of Brazilian NGOs and Social Movements for Environment and Development, said in a recent joint statement by various organizations.

“To the presidents and prime ministers of nations responsible for changing course we say: ‘You can start to deliver sustainable development today or face the anger and disappointment of millions of citizens in the years and generations to come,’” he said.

A report this year by a global sustainability panel set up by U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said that the world will need at least 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy and 30 percent more water by 2030, making it essential to integrate environmental and social issues into economic decisions, and to move sustainable development from the fringes of the global economic debate to the center.

More aid wanted

One area in which the U.S. and other wealthier nations will likely be targeted in Rio will be that of development aid to poor countries, and specifically the target – first raised decades ago and reaffirmed as a U.N. Millennium Development Goal – for donor countries to allocate 0.7 percent of their national income (GNI) for that purpose.

In 2011 the U.S. was, as usual, the biggest donor by far, giving some $30.7 billion – amounting to 0.2 percent of GNI – according to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development data. The next biggest donors was Germany ($14.5 billion), followed by Britain ($13.7bn), France ($12.9bn) and Japan ($10.6bn).

But the only donor countries to exceed the 0.7 percent target were the Netherlands ($6.3bn), Sweden ($5.6bn), Norway ($4.9bn), Denmark ($2.9bn) and Luxembourg ($413m).

“A transition to a sustainable, equitable economy, which invests in essential services like health and education, poverty reduction and cleaner, more resilient development paths, will require a mobilization of public finance on a massive scale,” the NGO Oxfam International said in a submission to Ban’s global sustainability panel.

“To achieve this, it is critical that rich nations deliver the 0.7 percent of GNI as foreign aid they promised in 1970. In addition to 0.7% commitments, rich countries need to provide climate finance to meet the needs of poor countries, which we estimate need to be at least $200 billion per year by 2020.”

Oxfam cited as potential revenue-raising mechanisms taxes on international transportation emissions of “greenhouse gases” blamed for climate change; and a tax on financial transactions.

Critics of the 0.7 percent goal say it is arbitrary and based on outdated assumptions.

Were the U.S. to have achieved the goal in 2010 it would have had to triple its aid to more than $100 billion – more than all of the other OECD donor nations combined, Connie Veillette of the Center for Global Development noted in a blog post last June.

“Setting aside the fact that a tripling of foreign aid is a political non-starter, there would also be myriad other concerns regarding the absorptive capacity of recipients, declining effectiveness, and aid dependency, among others,” she wrote. “Instead of blindly calling for more foreign aid, it would be more beneficial to make current levels of assistance more effective.”