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Blogging the Rio+20 Earth Summit for the Rest of Us: What's at Stake with the Green Economy

June 16, 2012 ·

President Barack Obama may be steering clear of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, but thousands of government delegates, civil society activists, and business lobbyists are already streaming into Brazil.

I arrived last night and will blog throughout this UN Conference on Sustainable Development. I'll bring you the latest about the talks among those somber-suited delegates who'll buzz around a complex of aircraft hangars on the edge of the city. And I'll sum up the action at the tent city that has sprung up in Rio's vast and verdant Flamengo Park — where the People's Summit for Social and Environmental Justice is taking place.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro/Shutterstock.comTo kick things off, here's some recommended reading for anyone who's about to board a plane to Rio to attend the summit from June 20-22, or to help you follow the action if you're not. To learn what's at stake, I recommend reading the Rio Conventions, which world leaders agreed to follow during the meeting they held here in 1992. These landmark treaties laid out the principles under which key issues of environmental protection are to be discussed. The three landmark conventions address climate change, biodiversity, and desertification.

Then there's Agenda 21 — a modest and rather toothless action plan for supposedly "sustainable development." (While over-excited tea partiers may consider that document to be a Soros-funded, left-wing conspiracy for the United Nations to achieve world domination, it never had much impact.)

And although the first Rio Earth Summit successfully established a framework for multilateral environmental negotiations, its impact has remained limited. Nature magazine's damning report card, which makes that clear, is also very disturbing. Global greenhouse gas emissions have risen at even faster rates than before. We continue to lose biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. Land degradation is causing the continued spread of deserts.

For this reason, many delegates in Rio this time around are simply calling for measures to implement existing commitments. They say that would be better than creating any new corporate-driven initiatives or issuing yet more empty promises. The Third World Network has a comprehensive overview of the key issues, and is publishing regular updates with details of who said what at the Rio+20 talks.

"Green economy" proposals have proven to be some of the most contentious so far. On June 14, the 133 countries that comprise the G77+China (the largest negotiating bloc, representing the majority of the world's population) walked out of talks on this element of the text. They cited a lack of progress on funding to help developing countries achieve more sustainable development and "technology transfer" mechanisms that could ease patent restrictions to promote the spread of cleaner technologies. Today, they kicked out of the agreement text that would have advocated a "transition to a green economy."

That's a win for progressives. Really. Wait — don't we want a greener economy? Of course we do, but as this briefing, this video , this animation, and this report clearly show, there's widespread concern that the term "green economy" is being used as a cover by rich countries lobbying for new markets to be created in biodiversity and ecosystems, and new avenues for financial speculation. A truly green economy, by contrast, would recognize the limits of what can be "financialized." It would protect both the common good and public resources.

The battle between these very different worldviews will continue here over the coming days. The Rio+20 negotiating text remains littered with language that could be used to promote markets for environmental services. And the fight against the anti-democratic variety of green economics must be waged outside this conference too, because the World Bank and other powerhouses are busily building institutions to support these new markets.

Oscar Reyes is an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies' Sustainable Energy & Economy Network. www.ips-dc.org

Durban Diary: The Waiting Game

December 9, 2011 ·

NGO events: part of COP17 waiting game. Photo by WWFCOP17. It’s 2:30pm in Durban, South Africa, and I’m rushing back and forth from meeting to meeting in the convention center waiting for the final plenaries of the UN climate negotiations to start.

There’s a particular arc to the climate negotiations I’ve noticed – at least in the last five that I’ve attended. The first week is a lot of meetings with government delegations to discuss the issues we’ve been following all year, meetings with our colleagues to figure out our strategy for getting what we want out of the climate talks. NGOs release their reports, advocacy groups try to crank out suggestions for countries’ to introduce in the official negotiating sessions. There are lots of side events, panel discussion, receptions with free wine and eats.

In the second week there’s a bit of a lull, the doors on government meetings swing shut on most conversations and we’re left waiting outside meeting room doors trying get a scrap of paper here and a snippet of intelligence from a friendly government there. 

By midway through the second week the high level ministers start arriving. Security gets tighter. Actions by youth, indigenous people, activist groups pop up here and there and are quickly shut down by the UN secretariat. Generally there are marches ‘outside’ that very few on the ‘inside’ even hear about (the exception was, of course, the demonstration by hundreds of thousands of people in Copenhagen in 2009).

By the time you reach the end of the second week, there’s a palpable sense of frenzy in the air. People are running back and forth in the halls waiting for some thing to happen. Anything.

But you wait.

And you wait. And you wait. And you wait. 

Eventually, after all the deals have been struck behind close doors, poor countries have sold their future for a handful of magic beans, and the US is duly satisfied that nothing agreed upon will upset its position at the top of the economic food chain, the negotiations resume.

Then governments make statements, deliberate various versions of draft decisions, and release a significant amount of hot air until around 2am. In a final crescendo, countries start lining up like well behaved infantry ready to get behind any solution that brings an end to the talks so they can get the hell out of here and go to bed.

And then that’s it. We go back to our hotels exhausted wondering why our governments won’t take the climate crisis seriously enough to do anything meaningful to stop it. We try to convince ourselves that there are ‘hooks’ all over the decision taken that will help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions either at home or multilaterally, or that there’s way to use the final outcome to raise some money for those communities who are already reeling from drought, floods, landslides, heat waves, wild fires, and sea level rise.

So that’s where I am right now. Sitting on the floor, tied to an electrical outlet to power my computer, waiting for the plenary doors to open, and wondering if my government – or any of the other governments present here – will do anything of consequence to make sure our future is one of ecological stability instead of planetary chaos.

Durban Diary: Climate Reality Check

December 8, 2011 ·

International climate negotiations, like those now grinding through their second week in Durban, South Africa, are generally rife with spin and counter spin. Governments, media, business groups – even non-profits – vie to get their messages to trump the rest.

Protesters have made their presence known at Durban. Photo by powless.The messaging frenzy at this year’s climate talks is over whom to blame for a lack of serious action to match both the need to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by least 85% by mid-century and the need for financial support in developing countries to deal with the realities of a warmer world.

The latest strategy from the press and some development and environment groups seems to be calling countries now emerging on the economic scene climate villains while giving truly recalcitrant countries like the US – which still has no hope of climate regulation at home – a pass.

Call me naïve, but do headlines like “Durban climate talks 'roadmap' held up by India” really reflect the forces pushing an alarmingly insufficient response to an increasingly imminent planetary emergency?

Let's have a reality check. 

Although it’s home to only 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States is responsible for 29 percent of carbon emissions over past 150 years, triple China’s share. On average, each person in the US emitted 720 tons of CO2 per year from 1960 to 2005. That’s almost fourteen times India’s per capita emissions and ninety times the per capita emissions of people Kenya during the same period.

Meanwhile in India 400 million people lack access to electricity.

According to a 2005 World Bank estimate, 42 percent of the Indian population fell below the international poverty line of US$ 1.25 a day (PPP).  

The 2011 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report ranked India 15th among countries facing serious problems with hunger. It also reported that between 1996 and 2011 India’s GHI actually increased – one of only three countries in the study to do so. The other 78 of the 81 developing countries studied actually improved conditions related to hunger.

India is also one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. During last year’s climate talks in Cancun, the World Food Program released a food insecurity and climate change map that gave India its highest rating.

Yes, global emissions need to peak as soon as possible. And, yes, we’re seeing the opposite happen. It’s an alarming fact that between 2009 and 2010, global emissions increased a record 6 percent. It’s just as alarming that the US – the country now blaming the big emerging economies for blocking progress on a climate deal – increased it’s emissions from the year before by 200 million tons. India’s increase was 150 million tons, which is a lot – but consider that India is home to about 900 million more people than the US!

For hundreds of millions of poor Indians, the right to develop is the right to survival. And part of developing means, realistically, growing emissions – unless there’s massive support from rich countries in the form of money and clean technology. 

Increasing greenhouse gas pollution in the United States is about spreading icing on the already rich cake of overconsumption.

So from my perspective here in the negotiating halls, India has good reason to insist that developed countries fulfill the existing mandate. The members of the Kyoto Protocol promised they would sign a second commitment period before 2012 ends, the US said it would take ‘comparable action’ to the developed countries that signed that treaty, and all developed countries agreed in 2007 in the Bali Action Plan to support developing countries pay for the greenhouse gas mitigating activities they promised to take on.

None of these have happened.

And why would anyone in their right mind agree to a new mandate that binds poor countries to do what rich countries – those who are most responsible for the climate crisis – refuse to do?

All governments need to significantly raise their level of ambition in the fight for climate stability. A global reduction in climate pollution and a domestic transition to a clean energy economy is good for India’s poor and for climate vulnerable communities around the world.

What we need in Durban is a commitment to complete the mandate that already exists. Countries must deliver a renewed Kyoto Protocol, and effective Green Climate Fund, and substantial money to fill it.

Many thanks to Dale Wen of the International Forum on Globalization for substantial contributions to this commentary.

Durban Diary: Dispatch from the Ground

December 6, 2011 ·

As UN climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, go into their final week, IPS got a quick update from Janet Redman, co-director of IPS’s Sustainable Energy & Economy Network, who is in Durban at talks.

Janet spoke to us from the corner of a crowded conference room at the summit about the current state of the negotiations:

Interviewer: It’s recently been announced that 2010 saw the most dramatic upswing in greenhouse gas output on record. How are folks in Durban reacting to this?

People not pollutersJanet Redman: Greenhouse gas emissions rose between 2009 and 2010 by a record-breaking 6 percent in one year. There’s a real sense of urgency here in Durban because of the news that emissions are growing at such an alarming rate.

But unfortunately that sense of urgency is not translating to action by the biggest historical polluters here.

In particular, what’s happened this week is a blame game that’s now shifted to the big developing countries. Developing economies still have incredibly high rates of poverty, even in countries that are considered “emerging economies” such as India and China. The EU and the U.S. are pegging the potential failure to reach a climate deal here in Durban on those two countries.

But we don’t need a new deal – or what some are calling a new mandate. What we really need out of this next week is to see countries agree to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, and to see a completion of the Bali action plan, which was a set of commitments and obligations that developing countries said they would take on with the support of developed countries and a commitment by the United States to take actions comparable to those of other wealthy northern countries. This was the compromise world leaders struck because the U.S. said it would never, ever sign the Kyoto Protocol.

The big news is that if developed countries are willing to agree to fulfill their own obligations that already exist in the convention and in this Bali action plan, then developing countries are considering negotiating internationally-binding activities that could take effect in 2020. That’s a pretty big deal. So basically, China’s already doing more than the U.S. is on renewable energy, but they’re even saying, we’re willing to take on binding commitments in the near future, as long as you show us good faith that you’re willing to do what you said you would do in Bali in 2007.

Interviewer: It sounds like there’s a lot of discussion on just renewing what’s already been agreed upon. Do you think that renewing or approving these already-negotiated terms would be enough?

JR: Well, in some sense it’s a first step toward a bigger change. One of the things that we’re hearing here is a call for a new mandate. I think that’s a real mistake because there are two existing mandates right now.

Again, the Kyoto Protocol is one mandate, and the Bali action plan is another mandate. The convention has set that up very clearly, so the idea of asking for a new mandate here in Durban actually undermines existing commitments that are science-based that have been agreed to already in the past 20 years since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was established.

So I think having movement on agreements would be enough to set the negotiations on a really positive track for subsequent periods after the second period of the Kyoto Protocol, but also on a positive track in terms of implementing the convention which of course is what this is all about.

Interviewer: There’s been discussion on possible threats to climate financing for developing countries. Are there any further observations that you’d like to share about that?

JR: Last week we were really concerned about the U.S. obstructing talks on opening the doors of the Green Climate Fund. As of earlier today, it looks like almost every country is satisfied with moving forward on the Fund, and building the Board that will put more meat on the bones of the GCF over the next year.

What’s still incredibly frightening is the blatant cooptation of the Green Climate Fund by the private sector, with unabashed support from the U.S. and the UK. If the financial sector and multinational corporations have direct access to the Fund and can bypass sovereign national governments, then we have a real potential for serious problems with democratic control, transparency, the application of social and environmental safeguards and basic standards, and the Fund’s effectiveness in achieving climate goals.

Finally, even if we get the Fund here in Durban it may be nothing more than an empty shell. The U.S. is still blocking a conversation on long term finance – both the scale that should be delivered on and the sources of where that money should come from. A text released last night did mention innovative sources of finance, but an outcome here in Durban needs to be much more specific about how countries will make that real. One thing they can do right now is commit to a work plan for implementing some of the leading proposals, such as a financial transaction tax.  

Interviewer: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me, Janet!

JR: Thank you!

Durban Diary: Who is the One Percent at the UN Climate Convention?

December 2, 2011 ·

Janet Redman, co-director of the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies, is observing the United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa. 

Before condemning the UN climate convention, which is still the most democratic space to hold negotiations about our planet's future, it’s helpful to borrow a tool from the Occupy movement: an analysis of the 1 percent and the 99 percent. 

Carbon emissions are likely to stay the same without the cooperation of powerful actors in the UN Climate Change Summit. Photo by Glenn Euloth.Mic check! 

The 1 percent in this struggle can be checked off in order of culpability:

  1. Elite individuals and ideologues who’ve used their wealth to build the media empires that shape public opinion and to buy political influence. This includes billionaire climate denying spin-doctors like the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and David and Charles Koch, the oil tycoon brothers who finance the ultra-conservative and astroturf tea party “movement.”

  2. The polluting corporations like BP, Cargill, and Monsanto, and obstructionist trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is challenging the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.

  3. The politicians and officials these corporations, wealthy people, and lobbyists buy. There are too many to name, but here are a few recently purchased by the coal industry: Representatives Eric Cantor (R-VA), Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and Jim Matheson (D-UT).

  4. The governments and institutions that represent their interests. At the top of the list in the climate negotiations are the United States and the World Bank.

The 99 percent are the millions starving in the Horn of Africa, drowning in Bangkok, and forced from their homes in the lower 9th ward of New Orleans. They (we) are the people suffering around the world from a problem they (we) didn’t cause and can’t solve alone.

The heroes in this struggle include anyone who chooses to stand together in solidarity to oppose these injustices — the people on the street, the movements, the voices, such as Pablo Salon from Bolivia, who are willing to speak the truth in the halls of power.

The fight for climate justice is a fight for economic justice in a climate-constrained world. It's a call for a new economic model of broad-based wealth, local democratic control and new measures of well-being like climate resiliency.

The climate negotiations are one battleground among others where this struggle is playing out — not the only one or even the main one, but one we ignore at our peril.

Join the global call for climate justice by participating in 1,000 Durbans in conjunction with the December 3rd Day of Action on Climate Justice.

Many thanks to Matthew Stilwell, Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, for contributing to this commentary.

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