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Can Rio+20 save multilateral environment talks?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 20 Oct 2011 14:37 GMT
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By Thin Lei Win

Climate talks are bogged down, carbon emissions are rising and concerns over the impacts of extreme weather events are increasing, with floods and storms dominating the nightly news in Asia.

By focusing on concrete, practical actions that promote sustainable development and reduce carbon emissions, the Rio+20 Earth Summit next June has the potential to bypass the politics of global climate negotiations and make real impact to the lives of people, activists say.

However, waning political commitment, foot-dragging by rich countries and a lack of trust and negotiation time might doom the Rio+20 meeting. And activists say failure in Rio could spell the death knell of multilateral talks to solve the pressing issue of climate change.

“Sustainable development should be the unifying theme in all of these (talks),” Elenita Dano, a researcher and activist based in the southern Philippines, told AlertNet on the sidelines of a two-day Rio+20 lead-up meeting in Seoul for activists and non-government organisations earlier this week.

“Climate change is a consequence of where unsustainable development led us,” she added.

Yet very few of the commitments made at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 have been delivered on in the past 20 years, she said - and there are worrying signs agreements may be watered down next year as well.

Rio+20 or the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), will take place next June in Rio de Janeiro, 20 years after the first Earth Summit there was hailed as a landmark meeting.

The 1992 gathering, attended by more than 100 heads of state or governments, created a wide-ranging blueprint for action to achieve sustainable development worldwide, as well as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biodiversity, and the Forest Principles.


Two decades on, Dano said there are signs rich countries want to back away on their commitment to sustainable development.

“All this questioning about the appropriateness of common but differentiated responsibilities -  we’ve seen that being very, very strong in climate negotiations,” she said, referring to the principle that that while all countries have a responsibility to tackle climate change, a heavier burden should be placed on developed countries.

That is because richer countries are responsible for most of the emissions so far that are producing climate change.

“(The rich countries) always say the countries that were poor before are now overtaking industrialised countries in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), but GDP doesn’t tell you the plight of the poor people at all or the inequality in the country,” Dano added.

“To me, that’s a very dishonest way of moving forward.”

Lack of trust remains a big stumbling block in most multilateral talks on environmental issues, said Chee Yoke Ling, director of programmes for the Third World Network.

Chee, who was part of the Malaysian delegation at the first Earth Summit , said that in 1992 people were willing to listen to each other and explain their positions during long, late-night negotiation sessions.

“That level of open discussion and exchange of views and realities is something we don’t see, more and more,” she said.

“There was more goodwill, there was more trust.”


Political commitment to the Earth Summit principles started waning in the 1990s, activists said, as deregulation and privatisation empowered the private sector and weakened the government.

“Now, if you go to many of the negotiations, you find that it’s... dominated by either foreign affairs or commerce (officials),” Chee told AlertNet. “So the economic part of the developed countries is now dictating positions.”

After almost 20 years of commitment to sustainable development , there is also deeper inequality around the world, activists said.

According to Chee, the success of Rio+20 depends in part on the upcoming UN climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, where virtually no one expects a binding climate pact to be agreed.

“If Durban comes out bad, then the political momentum for Rio would be very weak and no heads of states would want to go,” she predicted.

And “failure in Rio would be another nail in the coffin for multilateral talks,” she said.

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