At risk of a Rio carnival

New divisions in geopolitics are putting sustainable growth and the push toward a clean economy at risk – and Rio 20 might end up having nothing to show for itself.

The shifting sands of geopolitics, marked by rapid growth of big, emerging economies such as Brazil and China while traditionally rich countries fall behind, could undermine progress to define sustainable development goals at a United Nations conference next month.

New divisions between old allies are adding to familiar disputes over finance and responsibility as preparatory talks in New York last week failed to find consensus, causing the United Nations to add an extra round of talks later this month.

The Rio 20 summit in Brazil from June 20-22 is expected to attract more than 50,000 participants from governments, companies and environmental and lobby groups.

It will try to hammer out aspirational, rather than mandatory sustainable development goals across seven core themes – including food security, water and energy – but will not seek to repeat the outcome of the Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago, which led to the Kyoto Protocol on capping greenhouse gas emissions and a treaty on biodiversity.

One reason for the change in goals is the shift in global geopolitics that has come with the rising strength of countries like Brazil, South Africa, India and China – which are still classed as ‘developing’ countries despite their rapid growth, while the traditional "developed" nations like those of Europe, the United States and Japan struggle with slower growth.

"The world in 1992 is not the same as in 2012. Each country will now have to bear responsibility for ensuring sustainability," European Commissioner for Environment Janez Potocnik told Reuters.

"The negotiations ... are worrying at this stage. The pace is relatively slow and there is some lack of focus."

The shift has strengthened some developing countries and changed how countries approach certain issues, said Samantha Smith, leader of global climate and energy initiative for environmental group WWF.

It has created new alliances between countries and opened new divisions, which is undermining progress on many issues, particularly financing development goals.

"What is happening in the negotiations reflects what is happening in geopolitics in general," Smith said.

In a sign of the challenge facing government officials, the UN added an extra five days of talks in New York from May 29 to June 2 to salvage a negotiating text that has multiplied in size but has been diluted, after failing to make enough progress at last week's round of talks.

New Strength

While traditional rifts between rich and poorer nations linger on issues like finance, established groups of allies are branching out or splitting up in a reflection of their emerging economic status.

The so-called G77 and China coalition of developing countries has started to split into individual nations and groups, and a group comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China (BASIC) is gaining strength and prepared a parallel negotiating text to put forward next month, sources said.

The issue of raising finance is a major stumbling block, echoing long-standing disagreements in separate UN talks for a global emissions-cutting pact.

In that arena, industrialised countries have long been accused of not raising finance quickly enough to help more vulnerable countries adapt to climate change, and a fund designed to help channel up to $100 billion a year in aid is still an empty shell.

Traditionally richer nations like those in the European Union, the United States and Japan have been facing tougher economic times, with many countries imposing austerity measures on their citizens and cutting spending dramatically.

Some developing countries are concerned that the tough economic backdrop will provide an excuse for richer nations to back out of old financial commitments and avoid new ones.

"We hope that the financial crisis, which has hit both the developed and developing world does not lead us being short-sighted with respect to the Rio outcome," said Marlene Moses, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States negotiating bloc.

"We've seen a lack of ambition from some of our partners with respect to the outcome document, but we're optimistic that we can bring them on board," she added.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, which is sending representatives from its climate, environment and development divisions to Rio, as well as Commission President Jose Barroso, is still hopeful of a concrete outcome to the conference at final talks in June.

"Even if the EU is in the worst economic crisis ever, it will still deliver on its aid commitments and recognises additional efforts are needed," said Potocnik.

"A range of resources need to be mobilised, including international, public and private sources. ... Enabling conditions, such as phasing out environmentally harmful subsidies (on fossil fuels), is being talked about and really makes sense."

Argument over aid

The original UN Earth Summit 20 years ago agreed that around $125 billion in grants or concessions was needed from the international community in development aid by 2000, or around 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product.

Some developing countries are accusing donor countries such as Europe, the United States and Japan of failing to deliver the aid and want confirmation in the Rio 20 text that they will strive to commit to that original 0.7 per cent goal, which some donor countries oppose.

"There has been a bit of a blame game where they (developing countries) are trying to frame this as a lack of progress," said Antonio Hill, policy adviser at aid group Oxfam.

He said the Rio summit is unlikely to consider financing ideas favored by some rich countries, such as a financial transaction tax or levies on bunker fuels and the aviation sector.

"It's one of the things that is part of the back and forth tension between industrialized and developing countries. It is going to be very difficult to see much progress on financing that is unilateral," Hill added.

Green economy

The idea of a ‘green economy’ is another contentious issue.

The United Nations Environment Program defines a ‘green economy’ as one that improves human wellbeing and social equity while reducing environmental risks and scarcities.

The United Nations last week said some developed countries have "embraced" the green economy concept as a common road map for sustainable development.

But many developing countries are concerned that the concept might not go far enough to promote social justice and suspect it could bring about trade disputes and reduce competitiveness.

"I have the feeling that the logic and importance of a green economy is not yet being taken as something which is really needed for future sustainability," Potocnik said.

"We absolutely need new energy in the negotiating process to move to the stage where we get a concrete outcome in Rio."

This article was originally published by Reuters. Republished with permission.

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