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Nitin Desai: What Rio needs is responsibility

The 'American way of life' - and, for that matter, the way of life everywhere - has to be up for negotiation at Rio

Nitin Desai 

This column comes to you from Rio, where I am attending the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, popularly called Rio+20, the reference being to the original Rio summit of 1992. The mix of activities is very similar to other such large UN conferences — an acrimonious negotiation process, corporate gatherings to allow a display of social responsibility, a vast number of side events that offer their version of what needs to be done, activist groups that diligently lobby delegates, and lots of people looking lost and underemployed.

I was in charge of the substantive work and the secretariat support for the negotiations in the original Rio summit 20 years ago. That summit produced the Rio Declaration that contains principles like “common but differentiated responsibility” that people swear by even today and a negotiated programme of action called We must have got something right because as recently as January 2012 the in the US passed a resolution denouncing Agenda 21, describing it as “a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control” that considers “the American way of life of private property ownership, single family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms; all as destructive to the environment” and that seeks to accomplish social justice by “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth”!

The contentious issues in these global negotiations on sustainable development can be grouped into two sets. One includes those linked to fairness and equity, like the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” and concessionality in finance and technology transfer. The other involves measures to give concrete expression to the economy-ecology link like greening of fiscal policies, national accounts and so on. The resistance on the fairness issue comes mainly from the US; but on the economy-ecology link, India and China are more likely to voice their concerns because of their fears about surreptitious attempts at trade conditionalities.

If I had to characterise what is going on now at Rio, it would be that the US is trying to roll back what it had agreed to 20 years ago, under Bush the father, on the fairness and equity issues. They tried that in Rio+10 at Johannesburg, when Bush the son was in power, and are pursuing that agenda with special vigour at Rio+20, when Obama is in the saddle. There could be some short-term explanations for US intransigence — ensuring that the Republicans do not get ammunition for the election campaign or bolstering the hard line that the US is taking in the climate process. But the pattern is too consistent over a long period for such contingent explanations. I believe the problem lies in a gulf between US environmentalism and the green movements elsewhere.

As points out in his recent, misleadingly titled book on environmental history, How Much Should a Person Consume?, US environmentalism has involved two lines of action. One, reflecting the romanticisation of wilderness, is the national park movement, in which the US is truly a world leader. The other is downstream pollution management; even on this the US led the way with its pollution control legislation. A characteristic of these two action areas is that they do not require any fundamental reconsideration of the market system. Removing land from the production system is relatively easy when it is done in the vast emptiness of deserts and mountains. As for pollution control, a technological fix is all that may be required. Pollution legislation can be seen simply as an extension of municipal regulations to control potential nuisances. In particular, these action areas do not require any reconsideration of lifestyles and consumption; nor do they require global cooperation.

What Rio needs is responsibilityEuropean environmentalism was different, as it started asking questions about consumption standards quite early on — as is evident in the European obsession about recycling. Latin American environmentalism always pointed to their resource-exploiting economies and trade pressures as the problems that had to be addressed. As for us in India, our environmentalism came from a concern about agriculture and rural livelihoods. That is why the world other than the US readily accepted the core ideas of sustainable development that came out of Rio in 1992 and recognised that addressing environmental problems required action in matters like energy, land, forest and water policy.

The threat of reinforced the link between environment and development and gave a sharper edge to the equity issue. At Rio in 1992, the threat was still speculative. But now, with each report by the Intergovernmental Panel on being even more definite and more alarming than the previous one, the case for precautionary action is strong. But the action cannot be end-of-the-pipe clean-up. It has to address and change how energy is produced and consumed. It has to address the issue of a fair sharing of the space available for carbon emissions. The American way of life – and, for that matter, the way of life everywhere – has to be up for negotiation. This is because is the mother of all externalities — global, long-term and potentially catastrophic in its impact.

Twenty years after Rio, we need to strengthen the old agreements, not weaken them. That is the message from science. Over the past few days, I have been participating in a gathering of scientists who are increasingly concerned that we are leaving it too late. On climate they doubt if we can keep to the 2-degree goal and are afraid that with present trends we may be in for a potentially catastrophic 4 to 5 degree change. Of the nine planetary boundaries that we must not transgress to sustain life on earth, according to them, we have already crossed three — atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, rate of biodiversity loss and removal of atmospheric nitrogen for human use.

But these dire forecasts have had no impact on the negotiation process at Rio. At the time of writing, it looks as if the UN will cobble together a reasonably respectable agreement with some new commitments on sustainable development goals, green economy measures and institutional strengthening. This is not good enough. The risks that confront us require something more bold. The injustices that continue require something more fair. Unfortunately, nowhere do we have a government capable of fulfilling its responsibilities to its unborn citizens.  

First Published: Thu, June 21 2012. 00:36 IST