What will come out of the Rio 20 Summit?

It may be easy to dismiss the Rio 20 Summit as 'just another talk fest', but there is hope something more substantial can be achieved.

Yesterday, Climate Spectator set the scene for next month’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development – known colloquially as the Rio 20 Summit. Today we explore what major policy changes Australia can expect to see as a result.

“The green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should protect and enhance the natural resource base, increase resource efficiency, promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, and move the world towards low-carbon development.” -UN Rio 20, The Future We Want

The dense prose of the UN Zero Draft Outcomes document for Rio 20 gives little hint of any specifics which might achieve the commendable global reforms that it seeks. The protracted international negotiations will continue right up to the conclusion of the Summit on June 22. But what will the 123 Heads of Government (including Julia Gillard) achieve before returning home?

Earlier UN Environmental initiatives have delivered seminal turning points. Half-a-lifetime ago, the 1972 Stockholm Conference on Human Environments was central to putting the environment seriously on the agenda for Western governments.

In 1987 the UN World Commission on Environment and Development under former Norwegian PM Gro Harlem Bruntland produced its report “Our Common Future” giving the first detailed strategy for global sustainable development.

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio transformed the global focus on sustainable development. Its key outcome was Agenda 21 - a blueprint to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection. Other outcomes were the Convention on Biodiversity and the Framework convention on Climate Change which led to the Kyoto Protocol.

Australia adopted Agenda 21 in the form of a National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development and the 1993 Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment which first put into our laws concepts such as the precautionary principle and accountability of directors.

In 2002, the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development (Rio 10) achieved less prominence but shifted the focus to the role that business had to play in achieving more sustainable development across the globe. A succession of key meetings since then have continued the push for global action – the 2006 Business Round Table on Climate Change, COP14 in Copenhagen in 2009 and COP15 in Durban in 2011 – but arguably with diminishing results.

The Rio 20 website claims the Summit will set the sustainability agenda for the next decade with the focus being “a strong call for responsible and sustainable business practices…to create a more sustainable global market that can deliver benefits for all.”

What this will mean in practice is unclear.

A fundamental problem is the collapse of public confidence in the value of UN Summits to deliver results. The failure of COP14 in Copenhagen has produced a sea change in community attitudes and it will be easy for the bland agenda at Rio to be characterised as yet another global talk fest.

At the UN Association Seminar in Melbourne last week, the panel were asked what significant new developments might occur at Rio that would engage the public and get coverage in the daily media.

The first response was that it would depend on the celebrity power of UN Environment Ambassadors such as Richard Branson and supermodel Gisele Bundchen to get the media to cover the issues.

However, three potentially significant initiatives were highlighted:

The Global reporting initiative

The Global Reporting Initiative is the most tangible and most advanced of the proposals to be debated at Rio 20. The core proposition is to get agreement across all jurisdictions to have a common requirement for listed and private companies to either report on their key outcomes affecting sustainable development or to explain why they do not report.

It is estimated that there are 82,000 transnational global businesses, of which 45,000 are listed companies. However only 5 per cent of these currently produce annual sustainable development reports – either as part of their normal annual reporting or as a separate document. It is believed the proportion is significantly higher in Australia because of a trend going back to the ESD initiatives of the 1990s and public pressure for openness.

The ASX Principle 7 for Good Corporate Governance already requires reporting of risks on an “if not, why not” basis. Many companies have taken this to include reporting on environmental risks and sustainability programs and if the Global Reporting Initiative gains momentum, the obligation might be formalised and broadened to include private companies.

The Blue Economy

The role of the oceans in the global climate debate is receiving a lot more serious attention as the global mechanisms that control weather patterns and the interaction with the atmosphere is better understood.

There is growing support for a global approach to management of the oceans that lie outside of national territorial claims and the recognised 200 kilometre economic zones. The need for some international governance to enforce the laws of the ocean is working its way up the agenda – but the precedent of Antarctica suggests it might take many years for substantive changes to be agreed.

A World Environment Organisation

The theme of reform of the international governance of environmental issues could lead to major changes if the push for establishing a new World Environment Organisation gains momentum. This would be modelled on the World Health Organisation and would replace the United Nationals Environment Program and the UN Sustainable Development Commission.

Its broadened role would include running programs and setting global standards in addition to the current policy development focus. A WEO would also engage all member countries of the UN – not just those that currently subscribe to UNEP. At one level this could be a re-arrangement of deck-chairs – but on the other hand it could lead to really big changes in how the global community works together on environmental issues.

Other suggestions on the table include the Minerals Council proposal for a “lifetime assessment” perspective to the use of resources and expanding references to renewable energy to encompass low carbon sources. Surprisingly, the Minerals Council supports aspirational goals with clear targets and commitments of government resources to achieving them. However they remained sceptical about implementation – citing the example of Australia’s Closing the Gap targets for indigenous health and education falling well short of the UN Millennium goals that we support internationally.

Charles Berger, the Director of Strategic Ideas for the Australian Conservation Foundation, wanted the UN Conference to focus on redefining how the economy is measured to encompass all means of production and distribution of resources – including those for which no financial transactions take place (for example the work involved in raising a family, volunteering for community organisations and the value of untapped natural resources).

This bold bid for a new view of “the whole economy” was accompanied by three more modest bids for what Australia might do as a consequence of Rio 20:

-- Provide $10 million to the Australian Bureau of Statistics to enable it to expand its data collection to “integrated environment and economic measurement”.

-- Abolition of fossil fuel subsidies – gaining $2-5 billion a year for government.

-- In principle commitment to a small global financial transactions tax to be used to fund sustainable development in the third world (and at the same time reduce speculation in global markets).

How these ideas fare through the 500 side meetings and the 3 day Heads of Government Summit, remain to be seen.

The outcomes document “The Future we want” will be unrecognisable from its current draft by the end of the Summit. The world needs to be watching closely what happens in Rio. Hopefully it will see something as interesting as the London Olympics, but with greater long-term importance.

Andrew Herington is a former Labor Ministerial Adviser who was involved in the development of the Climate Change Act, and is now a Melbourne freelance writer.