Influencing the outcomes at Rio+20

With one month to go until the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development, I have just returned from New York where I discussed how policy think tanks, like IIED, can help frame the outcomes.

Camilla Toulmin's picture
Insight by 
Camilla Toulmin
24 May 2012
Izabella Teixeira, Minister of Environment of Brazil, taken during the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2011.

Izabella Teixeira, Minister of Environment of Brazil, who has supported the country's pursuit of green – and inclusive – growth. She will be speaking at IIED's Fair Ideas conference (Photo: World Economic Forum)

IIED is playing an important role in getting government representatives and environmentalists together at our Fair Ideas conference in the run up to Rio+20 so that we can have maximum impact in influencing outcomes.

There are mixed views about the likely end result from Rio. Optimists point to the growing number of heads of state due to turn up, particularly heavyweights like President Hu of China, and new arrivals such as President Hollande of France and Vladimir Putin of Russia.

But there are notable absences too. British Prime Minister David Cameron is still not going, despite a change of date so that it didn’t clash with the Queen’s Jubilee, nor is President Obama. Twenty environmental groups have recently sent a letter urging him to attend, but it’s doubtful that will have an impact on his decision to stay away. 

The pessimists point to the summit’s low political profile and the lack of progress in agreeing the text from the official process. The “zero draft text” produced by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development so far suggests that leaders won’t be asked to sign up to any substantive commitments. And, as the Green Economy Coalition points out, many questions about how to “kick-start” a green economy remain unanswered.

Unquestionably G8 and EU leaders are utterly distracted due to the Euro crisis. Governments concerned with generating growth are stuck with credit rating agencies on one side able to kick countries down the stairs, and private companies on the other who are sitting on a substantial cash pile, but unsure where to invest it. Some European Union countries recently decided to press for new controls on credit ratings agencies, but it  is also the ideal moment for leaders with foresight to recognise that the green economy could provide many of the answers to their troubles. Unfortunately, most are trapped in mental models which do not allow for looking outside the box.

Meanwhile, the environmental “credit agencies” have been downgrading our economic prospects from A to B minus. There are evident signs of stress in the global environmental and social system. A joint report by the World Wildlife Fund, the Zoological Society of London and the European Space Agency says: “We are using 50 per cent more resources than the Earth can provide, and unless we change course that number will grow very fast – by 2030, even two planets will not be enough.”

The International Energy Agency has shown us that global emissions of greenhouse gases in the last couple of years are higher even than the worst case scenario. Trends such as these mean that it will be almost impossible to stay below the  2 degree global temperature rise, according to the Club of Rome think tank. With 2-3 billion people likely to join the consuming classes over the next 20 years, the maths on resource availability and rising demand just doesn’t add up.

It is remarkable how much has changed over the last ten years – a massive waste of tax payers’ money has been spent fighting battles we did not want rather than building the low carbon economy we need. The enormous shift in geo-political weight associated with China’s rise has also brought to the fore a range of middle income countries wanting to push ahead with a strong multilateral agenda, regardless of the G8 or the G20. Some countries have spotted these patterns and acted. Denmark has carved out an effective alliance on green economy with Mexico and Korea, and the governments of Colombia, Guatemala and Peru have espoused the potential of global Sustainable Development Goals. It would seem that older established economies have a harder time in the 21st century, as they have too much in-built infrastructure and capital invested in yesterday’s economy.

It’s tempting to say we don’t need world leaders to jump on board the sustainability wagon. But if heads of state better understood sustainability and global interconnectedness, we would all be much more likely to see better choices being made nationally, and the pace of progress would be much faster with them driving change. Many world leaders will be attending the G20 summit in Mexico in June 18-19 2012, just two days before the Rio+20 summit. Taking a flight south to Rio+20 to take part would send out an important message to voters and other leaders that they’re committed to a more sustainable future.

Heads of state will recognise that their most important role is to set the policy scene in ways which can multiply many times over the numerous examples of good practice. Middle and low-income countries will justifiably seize the initiative and demand changes in consumption and production patterns in the high income countries, just as much as addressing sustainability in their own nations.

And what role can think tanks play? While think tanks have limited power, we can play an important role in this process by opening up a space for dialogue and offering evidence of alternative approaches which allows progressive governments to dare do things differently.

Think tanks need to show government leaders lots of practical examples of how to build sustainability in hundreds of different places – in cities and forests, factories and homesteads. And they should provide evidence of the many progressive businesses, governments, community activists and thinkers who want to take things forward. IIED’s Fair Ideas conference in th run up to Rio+20 is one such opportunity.

The financial crisis in Europe and the financial disarray of the G8 demonstrates only too vividly the very great costs of not thinking about tomorrow. As a species, we tend to push things to the limit before surveying the damage, recognising the danger then pulling back. But this is not sensible either for global finance or earthly stability. It’s time to be more grown up and use our foresight. We need to imagine the future we want, and the one we need to work hard to avoid.

Find out more about how action at Rio+20 and beyond can help deliver a fair, sustainable planet for the future. Read A three-point action plan for a fair, sustainable world