Will Rio+20 lead to an effective deal on sustainable development?

Brazil prepares to host the Rio+20 Conference between 20-22 June

by Joseph Markus

The latest leak of the Rio+20 draft text doesn’t make for pleasant (or easy) reading. What it does do is really give an insight into the very clear geopolitics being played out in the context of this negotiation—just look for where the US and the G77 (representatives of the global south) disagree—as well as the tedious pedantry of sustainable development talks.

One trend emerging from the negotiations over the draft text appears to be a focus on replacing specific language—for example, focussing on Member States of the World Trade Organization—with general wording: rather than using “their”, various WTO countries have sought to insert “our”. It’s a common thread: a number of the developed countries have also resisted attempts to make reference to other emergent (progressive) international law concepts, such as the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. The Guardian’s John Vidal picks up on this, reporting a fear among participants that ‘action’ words—“must”, “will” and “deliver”—are gradually being phased out to be replaced with the ‘weasel’ words of “noting”, “recognising”, “acknowledging” and “emphasising”. The upshot demonstrates that far from fulfilling the utopian aspirations of the many organisers and youth groups involved in and around the conference, at least for the developed countries concerned, it is just ‘business as usual’.

Previous environmental conferences have been stymied by just this failure: a disconnect between those states that stand to lose out through climate change, usually the low-lying countries (banded together into the Alliance of Small Island States), and those that expect to lose nothing or even expect to gain from the phenomenon.

The crisis of agreement is, at root, a classical collective action problem. In the same way as was true for nuclear disarmament, no one wanted to ‘blink’ first. Robert Keohane, renowned international relations scholar at Princeton University, has sought to enunciate the basis of the problem and it can be summarised simply: effective collective action requires faith. Unpacking that idea, he explains that the two major problems are that (i) the costs are immediate and (ii) the benefits are uncertain and in the future. To that I could add a third and a fourth: (iii) any such benefits are distributed unevenly and (iv) the benefits to each state don’t necessarily match up to the costs met by that state.

This leads to what in Professor Keohane’s view was the most plausible route forward (at the time, he was speaking of the Copenhagen conference). An optimal comprehensive regime should be recognised as an ideal-type but obviously unrealistic. Instead he placed great emphasis on the idea of a ‘regime complex’, in which numerous mechanisms and obligations from different quarters touch on environmental and developmental regulation. This approach has the advantages of adaptability and flexibility, but it loses comprehensiveness and clarity. In a sense, then, tackling the problems thrown up by the concept of sustainable development would be incremental. Little steps forward, with fewer and smaller steps backward, are the realistic way to get assent to improved and effective mechanisms.

The approaching three-days of negotiation already has all the hallmarks of the posturing and politicking so familiar at environment conferences (and it hasn’t even begun yet. Though of course, through necessity rather than by reason of anything more sinister, the majority of the negotiations take place behind the scenes and before the delegates and Heads of State arrive.) Inevitably, it is fair to conclude that from Rio+20, taking place in a week’s time, we are unlikely to see much beyond a precisely-worded set of aspirations. Let me be clear, being able to reach some forward-facing agreement that identifies the interlocking problems in the areas of development and environment and that expresses hope for the future is no bad thing. In fact that is undoubtedly one prerequisite for the trust or faith necessary to support collective action in a multipolar world. My worry is that this will be an insufficient effort and potentially one that risks giving the impression—one that often accompanies the hefty bureaucracy of UN-led conferences—of doing a lot, but that, in reality, achieves very little.

If realism gets us nowhere quick and idealism—in the context of the collective action problem—gets us nowhere at all, then we really are stuck.

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