Knocking on the door at Rio+20

By Daniel Hale
June 18, 2012

Across an area the size of an airport, large hangar-like buildings house plenary spaces, meeting rooms, press galleries, food courts, offices and exhibition spaces; Rio+20 is huge. 50,000 people have come. It’s the biggest UN conference ever, and expectations are running high.

So at the end of ‘Part 1’, the PrepCom (Preparatory Committee) meeting, where the 193 countries in attendance hammer out as much agreement on the outcome text as possible, where are we?

Progress has been slow. At the beginning of the PrepCom, only 20 per cent of the text had been agreed ‘ad ref’ (for now), with wrangling over the rest. Now we’re up to 37 per cent. The last we heard, only two sections have been agreed – on poverty and mountains. The rest: oceans, food and agriculture, the future institutional frameworks, finance and tech transfer, climate, water, and much else besides is very much up in the air.

If you follow the UNFCCC climate talks, you’ll be familiar with some of the dynamics that bedevil progress in talks like these. Developed countries try to wriggle out of making commitments (the financial crisis being a good excuse), the G77 group of over 130 developing countries is riven internally on a lot of issues (and is having what appears to be a conference within a conference today to work out what it actually thinks).

In this context, the EU looks almost progressive on a range of topics, while the rest of us are left scratching our heads.

Contentious issues include finance and tech transfer, means of implementation, sustainable development goals, and reaffirming Rio Principles. As a consequence, a lot of power politics has gone on. Meetings to discuss specific issues get delayed, then cancelled, as parties hold up proceedings, preferring to run the clock down until the Ministers arrive who can battle it out behind closed doors.

Some concerns are clearly valid – who would want sustainable development goals to detract from the Millennium Development Goals, for example? But with negotiating blocks holding common lines, it’s sometimes hard to see where the barriers to progress really lie.

Part of the problem is that some sessions are closed to the Major Groups (9 groupings that have special status here – women, farmers, indigenous peoples, NGOs, business and industry, etc.), posing difficulties for the 12,000 NGO delegates who are trying to follow what’s going on and report back to communities around the world. While member states have to be left alone to get on with the business of negotiating, it’s clearly important that the process is clear and transparent.

With such a lot to live up to from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, it’s tough to learn that some of the essentials from that conference are actively being weakened. The original Rio Earth Summit saw stakeholder engagement take centre stage as people were placed at the centre of sustainable development, but Principle 10 of the Rio Principles is being systematically undermined in the negotiations so far.

And Article 3 of the UNFCCC in 1992, ‘common but differentiated responsibility’, agreed at the Rio Earth Summit is also being kicked out systematically by some developed countries (because they have high responsibilities and don’t want to have to step up to it.) While Catholic Social Teaching builds incrementally in lockstep on itself, not so with global agreements, it seems.

The Brazilians have now taken over the process now that the PrepCom is over, before the big meeting starts. The next few days will be crucial to thrashing out the key issues: means of implementation, SDGs, oceans, and the institutional framework for sustainable development. All thorny issues.

There’s a new consolidated text to kick things off, and the Brazilians talked sternly of an ‘accelerated dynamic’ (diplomatic speak for pulling fingers out). Happily, they’ve said they want the process to be as open and transparent as possible, so we ought to be able to follow things. As for the consolidated text, I’m going to have to butter someone up for a copy of that...

(c) Daniel Hale is the Head of Delegation for Progressio at Rio+20. Keep up with all things Rio at and follow @Llamalola for the less formal side of Rio+20.

See also: 'The Future We Want': Christians speak out on Rio+20 -

Ekklesia will be running regular updates throughout Rio+20 from our colleagues at Progressio, alongside commentary from other partners and allies in the movement for climate justice, including CAFOD.

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