Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Rio+20 and the struggle with hot air

I've been in dozens of meetings where a Fearless Leader (TM) stands up and says "We must do this." Which is followed by a Greek chorus of Timid Followers saying "Yes, we must do this," at which point nothing more is said about this Thing That Must Be Done.  Everyone present knows This Thing will not be done because no responsibilities are assigned, no evaluation mechanisms are created and no sanctions proposed for those who fail to do This Thing. 

There are going to be a lot of those Fearless Leaders in Rio this week, and I'm afraid Rio+20 is going to look like one of those oft-repeated meetings. A lot of hot air is not very convincing solution to the world's hot air problem.
Of course climate summits are easy to take the piss out of, as I mentioned here. 

The difference for me is that previous conferences mattered in ways that this one doesn't. It was pretty easy to tell from the outset that the Copenhagen summit in 2009 was going to be a disaster because developed nations (notably the U.S.) and developing countries were not going to agree on who should pay the bill. Still, one could have held out the fleeting hope that the Kyoto Protocol emissions treaty would be extended to developing nations - crucial given that China is now the top carbon polluter.

The Durban meeting at least gave us some news. Three of the world's biggest economies agreed to agree on a climate treaty ten years from now, creating the "Durban Platform," -- yes, still kinda lame, but still noteworthy that these countries managed to agree to something. And Canada got off the fence to take its toys and went home, which was refreshing at least in its honesty.

There's just not much skin in the game in Rio+20. No binding cuts, no required overhauls of industrial policy, no obvious jousting among world powers. Just lots of people talking about the Thing We Must Do.

There's the usual boring triumphalism about said Thing. There’s the holier-than-thou outrage that polluting industries are in charge of the whole affair. And it wouldn't be complete without days of wire reports breathlessly publishing the vagaries of negotiations over what the final declaration won't say. Oh, and some stuff that just plain falls into the "I don't get it" category.

To pretend I'm not a total crank, I will give a nod to some relevant things relating to cities and mayors, who from what I can tell are in a much better position than heads of state to actually do something about climate change, energy efficiency, water conservation and the actual bread and butter issues. 

It was important that Rio+0 kicked off a global conversation about the environment twenty years ago. Since then the world has started to take these issues more seriously, which is at least in part a result of these efforts. 

Only now Rio+20 looks to me like a lot more talking when what the world really needs is a lot more doing.


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