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Our Insights 20 Jun 2012

Earth Summit or Dearth Summit?

By Geoff Lye

Having pretty much recovered from having my iPhone, iPad and laptop stolen (and having also pretty much recovered from one of the worst bouts of flu in my life), today in Rio was, on balance, a great day. People often ask me whether I am optimistic generally on the sustainability front and I find myself repeating that I wake up an optimist and go to bed a pessimist. And so it looks today. It started on a high note with our Executive Director, Mark Lee and Chris Coulter of GlobeScan, opening the Rio Business Day to a packed plenary of global business leaders: perfect in timing and content. The day ended, however, with a sober assessment of the final text for the heads of government to finalise and agree. Verdict: very weak on substance.

The rest of this morning’s Business Day session was frankly unimpressive, so I broke out for a coffee with Diana Liverman, who recruited me to teach on the Environmental Change and Management Masters program when she was Director of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. She is now at Arizona University and heavily involved in bridging the latest climate science into policy-thinking and policy-making. Her immediate response when asked how the Rio+20 process was going was ‘depressed’. Other than the Bali COP in 2007 –when we came away with high hopes of serious change including global commitments by the major Copenhagen conference – ‘depressed’ is probably the common theme of UN gatherings. 20 years ago, however, I – along with most participants – left the original Rio Earth Summit feeling almost euphoric that at last we had a global agreement that would set us on a truly sustainable path by the turn of the century. In practice, the only major global success since 1992 has been the Montreal Protocol, with most other environmental, social and economic indicators trending in the wrong direction.

On climate change, Diana’s view that it is now too late to hold global average temperature below 2 degrees of warming has hardened since we last met: she now advocates planners in government and business to continue to focus on mitigation in line with stabilising below 2 degrees, but planning and adapting for 5 degrees. Our own advice for business has to date been to mitigate (reduce the company’s full carbon footprint) for 2 degrees and adapt for 4 degrees. Maybe the time has come to modify our recommendations; but the additional one degree of warming has massive adverse implications for everyone – including for business (read an Oxford colleague, Mark Lynas’ assessment of what this will entail in his book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet – frightening).

I retained some optimism in spite of Diana’s low assessment of the latest UN text. As Lasse Gustavsson of WWF put it, “While we think some of the new text is a good base for the future, such as the language on oceans, we see a lopsided victory of weak words over action words – with the weak words winning out at 514 to 10. ‘Encourage’ is used approximately 50 times, while the word ‘must’ is used three times. Apparently, negotiators really like the word ‘support’ — they used it approximately 99 times — but can’t bear to use language like ‘we will,’ which appears only five times.” None of us should be surprised by this, but it is disappointing and highlights the need for other players – especially business – to take aggressive action both unilaterally and in partnership with like-minded businesses and civil society.

The emerging view is that the final text prepared for the Heads of government to refine and agree is woefully inadequate, see here for the latest version. In the spirit of optimism, however, some point to significant progress on proposals on protecting the world’s oceans and on strengthening the United Nations Environment Programme; and someone this evening pointed out that indigenous people’s rights are recognised in this text for the first time.

The theme of Rio+20 is ‘The World We Want’. Any reasonable assessment of the likely outcome, however, would have it re-branded ‘The World Will Be Left Wanting’. So tonight a pessimist, but tomorrow I will, no doubt, kick off back in optimistic mode.

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