Big business goes to Rio

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The best thing to come out of Rio+20 could be the strengthening of social movements in opposition to one of its core ideas. The false green economy’s grand Brazilian showcase might just be the event that helps to trigger its downfall.

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by Danny Chivers
New Internationalist, June 2012 

Many people don’t even know it’s happening. But from 20-22 June more than a hundred heads of state, along with an estimated 50,000 representatives from businesses, NGOs, trades unions, local government and others will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the 2012 UN Earth Summit.

The conference’s official website makes it look like a friendly gathering of world leaders and other ‘stakeholders’ from business and civil society. However, underneath the surface layer of polite discussion documents and optimistic press releases, a battle is raging.

Harmless-sounding phrases like ‘green economy’ and ‘sustainable development’ have become grounds for bitter dispute, as different governments and business interests attempt to redefine these terms to meet their own agenda.

Like a door that swings unexpectedly open to reveal a family squabble, the 2012 Rio Summit gives us a glimpse of an argument that’s been rumbling away largely out of the public eye – an argument about the future direction of intergovernmental environmental action.

This year’s event is commonly referred to as Rio+20 as it falls exactly two decades after the famous 1992 Earth Summit in the same city. That earlier UN conference is often cited as a key moment in the history of environmental politics: it established the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21.

The price of everything

While these measures contained many fine words and good ideas, they didn’t have much regulatory force behind them and relied on voluntary actions by governments, business and civil society.

This row of well-meaning policy sandcastles have spent the past 20 years being eaten away by a rising tide of fundamentalist free-market economics, unfettered financial speculation, and consolidated corporate power.

As a result, any environmental and social gains from the first Rio summit look small next to the destruction wrought by a voracious corporate sector and by governments obsessed with growth in GDP before all else.

Global inequality has increased, natural habitats have been degraded and climate talks have been stalled by a mix of corporate lobbying and self-interested political horse-trading.

Much of this has been done by companies and politicians under the banner of ‘sustainable development’ – sustainable in this case meaning ‘able to keep making money into the future’.

A shift to a genuinely sustainable society will require us to challenge these negative forces, rein in the excesses of corporations and markets, and build an entirely different economy based on wellbeing for the many rather than profits for the few.

But Rio+20 shows little sign of achieving this. It could make things worse. The preparatory Green Economy Report launched by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2011 provoked outrage among NGOs by focusing on market-based and technological responses to the environmental crisis, rather than the underlying economic and political causes.

Silvia Ribeiro from the campaign group ETC Mexico points out: ‘Collapsing financial markets in Northern countries mean that banks and other investors are now looking desperately for new areas of expansion and speculation. We can see these desires leaving their mark on the Rio+20 process. The “Green Economy” now under discussion would unleash a wave of risky but lucrative new technologies such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology and climate technofixes. This isn’t about finding the best environmental solutions: it’s about creating profitable new investments.’

Another key theme of the 2011 UNEP report – which had investment banker Pavan Sukdhev as a lead author – was that placing a financial value on natural systems, cycles and habitats would allow markets to price them properly, and thus prevent them from being degraded.

This approach has broad support from many Northern governments and institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, but has set off alarm bells elsewhere.

Thomas Barlow from the World Development Movement says:

‘The global market is a fundamental part of the problem. Through its quest for never-ending growth, it helps to drive our insatiable appetite for the things – like clean air, water, biodiversity – that nature provides.

‘Protection of these cannot be left in the hands of this market – we cannot afford to live in a world where ecosystems are protected if, and only if, there is more profit to be made by protecting them than by trashing them.

‘Protection of natural systems will only happen through bringing the market under control, not by giving it yet more power over nature.’

Unacknowledged power ow has this controversial vision of the green economy crept into the Rio+20 process? Part of the problem is that the UN is attempting to figure out a global governance system that would prevent environmental destruction, but is allowing those most responsible for that destruction to claim a disproportionate voice within the process. Large polluting industries, business lobby groups and financial institutions are welcomed in as well-meaning ‘stakeholders’ – like mafia bosses invited to a meeting on reducing gang violence.

While the UN’s stated commitment to dialogue and consensus is laudable, the process fails to acknowledge the imbalances of power that allow the wealthiest governments to wield greater influence within the negotiations, while small farmers, indigenous groups, and other representatives of affected communities are given token representation but largely ignored.

The businesses with the most wealth and power are those that have flourished in an economy based on the unrestricted use of natural resources and the exploitation of many of the world’s people. Those with the most to lose from a shift to true sustainability are therefore those with the most power to block that change. Some, like South African petrochemical giant Sasol, influence the UN process through cosy relationships with national governments. Some, like Brazilian miner Vale, muscle in on civil society networks and influence their input in the Rio process. Still others work via lobbying organizations such as the International Emissions Trading Association. Meanwhile, industry groups, like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, have had an organizing role within the various Rio+20 pre-meetings.

The scientific community has also been getting increasingly vocal. A major conference called Planet Under Pressure brought together almost 3,000 scientists in London in March, with the aim of giving some stark warnings and policy advice to politicians in the run-up to Rio. The ‘State of the Planet’ declaration issued from the conference didn’t mince its words: ‘Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the wellbeing of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk… creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.’

The accompanying policy papers recognized the need for social change and better environmental governance, not just more technology. Useful concepts like planetary boundaries and the ‘Inclusive Wealth Index’ (an alternative to GDP) were presented, and speakers from the stage spoke repeatedly for the need for a ‘paradigm shift’ in society.

However, there was little acknowledgement of what this would mean in practice, that there are powerful interests working against such a shift and that they will need to be challenged. Instead, the general plan seemed to be just to keep on telling people about the problem and hoping that good folks from across society will agree to work together to fix it – including the big corporations.

The waters were particularly muddy in the discussions around ‘valuing ecosystem services’. Researchers have been assessing the monetary value of crucial environmental services such as the water-filtering properties of wetlands, in order to explain to policymakers just how much would be lost by damaging or destroying them. For example, the Stockholm Environment Institute calculated that the economic value of the oceans could be reduced by up to $2 trillion per year if climate change is left unchecked.

These studies are doubtless carried out with the best of intentions and may help to protect some ecosystems in the short term. However, they could also represent a dangerous first step towards the ‘costing’ of ecosystem services for trade on the open market. Rather than seeking that much-vaunted paradigm shift, this kind of research accepts and reinforces the terms laid down for us by the existing system – the idea that nothing can be valued unless it has a price tag.

Timid monstrosity

Of course, scientists aren’t a lab-coated homogeneous mass. Nor are activists all of one mind. Some NGOs and civil society groups have fully engaged with the Rio+20 process, sending submissions into the draft document and delegates to the meetings; others have preferred to spend their time mobilizing people elsewhere, including at a parallel People’s Summit which will take place in Rio during the UN talks. Many are pursuing a dual strategy, both inside and outside the talks.

However, most are united in their criticism of the draft declaration that’s been put together so far – the ‘outcome document’ that governments will sign up to at the end of Rio+20. An initial 19-page ‘zero draft’ document was launched in January as a starting point for discussion. It contained no binding resolutions of any kind, just a wish-list of voluntary actions that business and government would be ‘encouraged’ to take, and lots of mentions of a poorly defined ‘green economy’.

In response, civil society and industry groups put forward their own suggested amendments. Environmental campaigners, indigenous peoples and Southern farmers’ groups called for major changes; meanwhile, the business lobby were generally happy with the document, asking for adjustments like the removal of references to technology transfer and the role of small farmers.

Governments – often grouped into ‘blocs’ – then submitted formal amendments to the draft, with suggested additions and removals. These suggestions swelled the document from 19 to over 150 pages, reflecting the level of disagreement involved. Derek Osborn of the Stakeholder Forum has described the new draft as a ‘monstrosity’ full of ‘timidity, caution, suspicion, protection of vested interests, and even attempts to undermine and go backward on rights, actions and issues already agreed.’

Groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and La Via Campesina are calling for a very different Rio+20 agreement based on respect for people’s rights to land, food and clean water. Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of IEN, said: ‘Systems such as “payment for ecological services” and using forests in carbon offset markets do nothing but make Mother Earth into the World Trade Organization of nature.’ He stated that Indigenous Peoples from around the world would be coming together at Rio to ‘oppose an agenda based on the privatization and commodification of nature’. Campaigners like the ETC Group are calling for proper technology assessment measures to be built in to any agreement, before untested geo-engineering and synthetic biology techniques are unleashed in the name of the green economy.

Quite how all of this will be boiled down into any kind of coherent final statement remains to be seen. However it emerges, the new Rio declaration will give us a snapshot of where we’re at with these crucial debates, and how far we still need to go.

Moving forwards

On a more positive note, Rio+20 has been a good opportunity to raise the profile of some interesting and potentially useful sustainability ideas. It’s also helped to bring together disparate groups and build important new alliances. For example, an international pre-Rio+20 conference organized by the Central Workers of Argentina reinforced alliances between trades unions and environmental movements. According to Lucia Ortiz of Friends of the Earth Brazil:

‘Trades Unions are getting very concerned about the “green economy” agenda, because it represents a deepening of neoliberal policies, and threatens to undermine the social rights already secured by past struggles. They are working in solidarity with environmentalists, indigenous peoples, farmers and women’s rights activists, calling instead for a transition to a sustainable and just society free from the exploitation of workers and of nature.’

The best thing to come out of Rio+20 could be the strengthening of social movements in opposition to one of its core ideas. The false green economy’s grand Brazilian showcase might just be the event that helps to trigger its downfall.

Danny Chivers is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change: The Science, the solutions, the way forward (New Internationalist, 2010)