There will be some high-profile absentees, but 120 heads of government are still turning up at Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20. Their task is so daunting that they are practically set up to fail: to chalk out a strategy for earth-friendly economic development, focused at eradicating poverty and hunger and meeting basic needs while simultaneously conserving the planet’s natural assets. This is even harder than it sounds; a UN report put out ahead of the conference says that of the 90-odd objectives agreed to in the original Earth Summit at Rio in 1992, barely four have seen adequate progress. However, that summit did serve as a progenitor for a series of crucial and unprecedented global accords. These included the Convention on Biodiversity, the UN Convention on Climate Change — which led to the formulation of the Kyoto Protocol, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development, among others. Follow-up action on some of these conventions has not, sadly, been on the same scale as for the one on climate change. And even on climate change, the Kyoto pact is all set to expire this year without meeting its targets and without a consensus-based successor.
It can hardly be denied that, on the whole, the state of the earth’s living assets is worse now than it was 20 years ago. Nor is the future hopeful, as humanity exploits, annually, one-and-a-half times more natural resources than the planet can regenerate. India has at least managed a slew of recent legislative and policy initiatives, including the enactment of environment and biodiversity protection laws and the launch of various missions across government departments to combat climate change — besides, of course, working to meet the Millennium Development Goals on poverty, malnutrition and basic amenities.
India’s traditional image at international negotiations has been that of a deal-breaker rather than a deal-maker; but it cannot afford to indulge in any naysaying at a summit of this consequence. However, it must not allow fear of “isolation” to force it into, say, an alliance with the People’s Republic of China, as had happened at the Copenhagen climate change summit. The central effort at Rio is to get the laggard United States to sign on to the changes desired by developing countries, while simultaneously ensuring that Europe’s better performers do not sneak trade distortions disguised as environmental provisions. In this effort, China – which now pollutes at near-developed world levels – is not India’s natural ally. India, with its long and imperfectly protected shoreline and its vast exposure to climate risk (just think of the havoc a change in monsoon patterns would cause), is the country most at risk from climate change. Its economy is also poised to suffer the most from an overly restrictive agreement. Given the stakes, India’s negotiators should take the lead in finding a way forward.