Rio may be considered a failure in terms of the outcomes, but the lessons that can be taken from negotiations mean that the conference could prove to be a success in the long term.While I despise the general media portrayal of Rio+20 as a complete and utter failure, I do essentially agree. The outcomes of the conference fail to put the international community on any kind of track towards a sustainable society and economy within the time-frames needed. My issue is that the media (who may I add didn’t help at all by providing little coverage and failing to catalyse any public pressure) loves to paint Rio+20 as a failure but doesn’t give any analysis as to why or how we can move forward.
Of course, this was expected. The mainstream media is a shallow and profit driven always opting for controversy over useful commentary. So, I’ll attempt to do provide some such commentary now, because there is much to learn from Rio.
The negotiations display some of the key actors and leverage points in the international system. The first lesson is one that is not unique to Rio, it is a problem that has plagued many international treaties- the US.
One of the main points of discussion at Rio+20 was whether to transform the United Nations Environment Programme (an out-dated, under-funded UN programme with little international authority) into a World Environment Organisation (WEO). The idea was consistently rejected by the US on the basis that the creation of a WEO would require ratification by the US- something they cannot do. Long story short, the US requires a three-quarters majority vote in the senate to ratify any international convention or treaty. As one can imagine, with the republican presence in the senate, this is basically impossible, hence why the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified.
We have to finally address the elephant in the room. We need to leave the US behind and forge ahead with progressive international treaties and conventions. It is pointless to continuously water down international agreements to suit a failing superpower who probably won’t ratify them anyway (ahem, Kyoto). A- to borrow an American term- ‘coalition of the willing’ would be better advised to go ahead and create innovative and ambitious agreements and institutions without the US. Once they have their domestic politics in order (hopefully soon) they can ratify and jump on the bandwagon.
The second issue is another powerful actor (or group of actors) that are increasingly becoming a blockade to progressive outcomes. The G-77, a group of developing countries around the world, was a hindrance to many issues at Rio+20 including the establishment of a WEO, a global ombudsman, and basically anything to do with the Green Economy.
The problem is that this massive group of over 130 countries functions on the basis of consensus. This means to get agreement they almost always take the lowest common denominator- the least ambitious position. It is a somewhat morbid system where small island states like the Maldives will often be forced to take the same negotiating lines as Saudi Arabia. This makes lobbying and pressuring nations difficult, since it can be unclear who within the G-77 is acting as a blocker. The group also serves to entrench the antagonism of the developing-developed country split, a divide which is no longer as clear as it used to be.
The solution here is simple. We break the G-77. While doing so may not be straight forward the benefits are clear. It will be easier to isolate blocker nations and leverage international and public pressure against them. The break-up of the G-77 will also allow for the emergence of useful, regional forms of governance, like the African Union, to further prosper and move the world beyond the now defunct developing-developed divide. Granted, this would not be as necessary if the group abandoned the ridiculous notion of consensus, something that the entire international system should do.
Rio+20, like most international conferences in the last decade, has highlighted the need to change away from the regressive method of decision-making known as consensus. A case in point was the issue of reproductive rights at Rio+20. The inclusion of a reference to reproductive rights was strongly supported by civil society and the vast majority of states. Except for one: a non-secular ‘state’ of roughly 800 people, also known as “The Vatican”. The Holy See despite widespread opposition was successful in deleting any reference to “reproductive rights”. The main reason was consensus, which effectively gives every party, including the Vatican, a veto.
This has been an Achilles heel in climate change negotiations which has led to many nations calling for a change to majority voting. Mexico has become a leader in pushing for this both in the UNFCCC and even the recent international arms controls negotiations. And why not? The Vienna Convention on O-Zone protection, the poster-child of environmental agreements, operated on three quarters majority voting, not consensus.I shall briefly mention one last topic, which my next (and final) article will centre upon- the role of civil society. Civil society, particularly the youth, have a vast potential to influence negotiations in a myriad number of ways from providing political pressure through to helping to facilitate creative compromise. Despite many successes , the missed opportunities and fragmentation of the youth group at the end Rio+20 show that there is some to go before the youth within civil society becomes the unified, strategic force that is needed.
While Rio+20 may not have given us the future we want, a closer look gives us some hints on how to achieve that future. As in everyday life every setback represents a learning experience. Either we learn from our mistakes and adapt or are doomed to repeat them. The current track record of negotiations would suggest little has been learnt from the past. Let us no longer lament on outcomes but focus on perfecting our strategies for the future. Let the environmental movement take heed of these lessons and rise from Rio.