At Rio Summit, will nations get serious about sustainability?

Beyond Boundaries

In June the biggest conference of 2012 will take place in the city of Rio de Janeiro on what can only be described as an all comprehensive meta theme, ‘Sustainable development.’

The term literally covers everything under the sun – humanity and its habitat, the earth. More than a hundred world leaders and thousands of corporate CEOs, scientists, academics, NGOs and environmental activists will congregate in a city that is a showcase for the best and the worst in nature.

Rio has spectacular beaches, lush rainforests on the fringe, granite rocks jutting out of the Atlantic, and equally, scores of  congested favelas- the Brazilian term for slums dotting the city, horrific mudslides and impossible traffic.

While negotiators get ready, skeptics are already wondering about the outcome of this UN Conference. Will it produce results or will it be another talking marathon?  For those concerned about the earth and how much it can bear of humanity’s burdens, there is anxiety about whether ‘progress’ will be made.

  Such questioning is legitimate. But it may be useful, to go one step behind the questioning and ask another question – how to evaluate ‘progress’ on a big issue like this.

The UN is the most universal forum available for discussions on issues transcending national boundaries and affecting all of humanity. In 1992, twenty years ago, the city of Rio had played host to another summit now known as the Earth summit, which put the issue of environment on the global agenda.

Since then international awareness of the importance of environment has grown, a modest result as it were of the earlier conference.  In the forthcoming conference, Rio +20 as it is getting known, the theme is broader than ‘environment’ – it is sustainable development at the core of which is the equation between human needs and nature’s resources.

The objective is of reaching understanding about working towards a viable system for future generations and at least their basic needs: water, food, energy, health. Such understanding and agreements are to be reached ultimately between the 193 nations in the UN.

Contrasting lifestyles

To appreciate the challenges in making progress in international negotiations, let us look at the process. The so called 'international community', a catch-all phrase actually encompasses many different groups and hides their divergent interests.

With specific regard to the debate on sustainable development, some nations are resource-rich blessed with land, water, vegetation and even oil as in the case of Brazil. Others are deficient in many such resources.

Some like India and China have huge populations and must address the challenge of limiting population growth while some others have the problem of declining population as with Japan or Russia.

The affluent countries have virtually reached saturation in their consumption patterns and can contemplate alternative life styles, while millions in developing countries do not have access to basic necessities.

Each nation, big or small, rich or poor, growing or declining has a stake in the future of the earth and its resources. The issue then is how to reach understandings that are acceptable, equitable and beneficial to all of humanity?

It is not necessarily the case that international negotiations are always arduous.

The UN system encompasses a spectrum of activities ranging from the functional to issues involving nations’ very identity and security.  In forums such as WHO or FAO  national positions can be harmonised with discussions. 

Negotiations involving trade as in WTO or finance as in IMF are more complex as the tangible interests of each country are involved and there are trade-offs and winners and losers at the end of the process.

Sustainable development is different.  It is in the category of a global issue affecting all mankind but also impacting on the economic interests of nations such as the use of fossil fuels that the earth has, oceans,  deserts or space. Here the challenge is to reconcile what is good for the future of humanity in the long term with immediate and medium term national interests as perceived by the governments.

The process as it is practiced now adds to the complexity. It is obvious that 193 national representatives, notionally equal, will always find it difficult to agree on anything, even the timing for the meetings!  Groups are therefore formed based on commonality of interests though within each group there are those with particular concerns to defend.

Between groups at different stages of development, differing endowment of resources and capital and other critical divergences to reach agreements is even more problematic. Thematic conferences such as the forthcoming one on sustainable development are expected to reach decisions by ‘consensus’, as it is not wise to coerce nations to agree to a majority view.

Hence sometimes the ‘progress’ is glacial and the results are sub-optimal. In the past decade a positive feature of such conferences is the involvement of the NGOs and civil society. The discussions and the debates sometimes are as important as the declarations and outcome documents.

The return to Rio by so many different countries and participants should be seen against this background. The conference will at the very least sensitise us about the non-sustainability of the current practices and make us think of alternatives. At the very least, but hopefully there will be much more.

(The writer is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil. These are his personal views)

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