Rio+20 Mañana

One of my New Year 2012 resolutions was to report here about events I attend. Trouble is I always seem to put it off – “mañana”, I think – and after a few days there’s another event to report on. In fact I’m already one event behind (thorium – mañana) but am nevertheless starting by reporting on the Alternative Rio+20 Summit organised in London by the Campaign against Climate Change (CCC).

My expectations were moderate to low – I was hoping for a briefing on what Rio+20 is all about and maybe some interesting talks and discussions. I can’t say these aims were met. The CCC is about climate change and that’s not the main topic at Rio, so the conference wasn’t focused as well as it might have been. And whereas a few years ago CCC conferences were excellent and informative, they now seem to be a gathering mainly of “activists” all keen to promote their cause. The Q&A sessions were therefore largely hijacked, most annoyingly by a social networking bedwetter carrying around a 3ft dragon soft toy as a way to attract attention, and a woman wearing Mickey Mouse ears with text proclaiming something about “McNulty”. She was campaigning against proposed cuts in rail services. The effectiveness of her interjections may be judged by the fact that I had to google “McNulty rail” to find out who the guy was. Both campaigners, using the term loosely in the case of Mr Twitter-will-save-the-world, not only spoke off-topic in the plenary, but in subsequent breakout groups too. Most people in the breakout meetings will have attended the plenary.

The likelihood is extremely low that any intelligent debate can be organised around topics so vaguely defined as “sustainability” and “development”. Compounding the problem, “sustainable development” is – if these words mean anything at all – an oxymoron. So what I found most interesting about the whole Alternative Rio+20 event were the reflections on the history of international negotiations made by a couple of academics from the host institution, the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS). Harald Heubaum spoke about how Copenhagen failed for procedural reasons and suggested that the G77 group of countries was less unified than at the original Rio (the “Earth Summit”) and the West less inclined to make concessions. My initial thoughts were that perhaps the Earth Summit was too successful and, as well as taking all the low-hanging fruit (so how could any subsequent conference possibly match its ambition?), locked in unhelpful features, such as the distinction between “developed” and “developing” countries, with no mechanism for movement between these groupings. Of course, dividing the world in this way is madness, but the very idea of countries negotiating in the way they do is flawed. The interests of states is not the same as the interests of their people, so we end up with bizarre assertions, such as that the “right to develop” is a human right. It’s not, “development” is collective, human rights refer to individuals.

As far as climate change is concerned, these international talks are becoming increasingly fruitless, at least in terms of action (as opposed to exchange of ideas). The whole exercise has become entirely dominated by demands from developing countries that the developed countries are unable to meet. “Development” is in any case not something that can simply be given, or prevented. What’s clearly needed is to establish technocratic institutions that are able to say these are the rules for burning coal, preserving forests & oceans, wherever they are in the world. That’s right – we need the same rules for everyone.

Reading about the Rio talks – such as the draft text – is profoundly depressing. There’s little clarity, but the question our leaders are apparently asking is something like: “How can the aim of preserving the environment be prevented from conflicting with ‘development’?” The “needs” of the economy rather than the need to preserve the environment are taken as a given. Common sense, such as the observation that there are indigenous peoples who just want things left as they are and who aren’t really bothered about “development”, would suggest turning the whole thing round. “How can we protect the planet from the Malthusian juggernaut of industrialisation?” Clearly there’s a process – economic growth or “development” – that may be a good thing or may be a bad thing, but has certainly been accelerating for a couple of centuries, a process that will, if left unchecked, consume the planet. This process simply needs to be constrained. Such an observation would suggest that we need to simply protect remaining biodiversity wherever it is, leave fossil fuels in the ground wherever they are and so on. The tools currently being employed by the global community are not achieving this, and are never likely to.

We don’t need Rio+20. We don’t need any more COPs (Conferences of the Parties), such as Copenhagen. What we need is an entirely different process that starts from the environmental problems we’re actually trying to solve. The interests of nation states (or those of any other institution) should not be represented, since these will obviously conflict with the goal. Sovereignty must be delegated, else solutions are impossible. The technocrats would simply need to decide what the best mechanism is for preserving each resource – outright bans on exploitation perhaps in some cases, but most likely some form of pricing – and how best to implement it.

I do have more to say, but the morning is over. I’ll try to find some time to finish. Mañana.