Heading for Rio, Again…

With the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development a week away Robyn Eckersley claims that we need much more than another shopping list of goals. According to her we need an outcome that is visionary, tangible and transformatory.  

Photo: Misha Jemsek.

In June 2012 governments, stakeholders and global civil society will gather together at the Rio+20 Conference in Brazil to renew and enhance the international community’s commitment to sustainable development. The agenda is both exciting and ambitious. The so-called ‘zero draft’ outcome document remains a work in progress, bulging with competing ideas, both big and small.

The two grand themes under consideration are building a green economy to promote sustainable development and poverty eradication and rethinking the global institutional framework for sustainable development.

The first theme presents the conference with the opportunity to steer away from the ecological myopia of neoliberalism towards a new economic philosophy that respects local and planetary ecological thresholds and the Earth’s biodiversity while reducing the glaring gap between rich and poor. This theme is highly contested but it has generated an outpouring of new ideas alongside the refinement of older ones. My favourites include the ‘plenty line’ (to complement the ‘poverty line’), Sustainable Energy Trade Agreements and Clean Trade Agreements to replace Free Trade Agreements, and a new ‘genuine progress indicator’ to replace GDP.

There are also ‘no brainers’ on the table, like phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, increasing energy and resource efficiency, promoting renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies, and factoring the full social and ecological costs of production and consumption into prices. As ever, the bitter fights will revolve around apportioning the costs of adjustment and ensuring that the ladder is not kicked down for developing countries.

The second theme presents the conference with a unique constitutional moment to review the out-dated international governance institutions created in the aftermath of World War Two, which were premised on cornucopian assumptions and unbridled economic growth. This includes reforming the international institutions of environmental governance by upgrading the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to a specialised UN Agency and creating a new Sustainable Development Council in the United Nations system.

However, these reforms, while welcome, will not be enough. Planetary environmental thresholds and goals must also be thoroughly infused into the core institutions of economic governance, such as the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. Since the first Earth Summit in 1992, these institutions have given only tokenist consideration to sustainable development and have largely undermined many of the painstaking achievements of environmental multilateralism. Rio+20 provides a unique opportunity to correct what the UNEP’s Report on the Green Economy has called ‘the gross misallocation of capital’ that is perpetuating unsustainable development around the world.

Even if the conference falls short of these lofty goals, organisers are hopeful that the negotiators will at least agreed on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to complement the Millennium Development Goals.

Yet, after twenty years of faltering steps towards sustainable development, we need much more than another shopping list of goals. We need an outcome that is visionary, tangible and transformatory, one that turns economic thinking on its head. As the former US Senator Gaylord Nelson once put it, the economy must take its proper place as ‘a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment’, and not the other way around.•

Robyn Eckersley is Professor of Political Science at the University of Melbourne and a former Arne Næss Chair. This article originally appeared in Issue 1 of Tvergastein, Interdisciplinary Journal of the Environment.  

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