politics sustainability

Why UN summits don’t achieve anything

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about Rio +20 this week, the UN conference on sustainable development. As usual it’s been a focus for campaigns and advocacy, and this is a big one. It’s the 20th anniversary of the original Rio Summit, which felt like a real breakthrough. Symbolism aside, expectations this time around are pretty low.

If you want to know why, just spend two minutes browsing the draft pre-conference statement. The text leaked recently, and it shows the text mid-discussion. It’s full of suggested additions and deletions and who requested the changes. It’s chronically boring of course, but also rather enlightening. For once you get to see the truth behind various countries’ rhetoric. The limits of what countries will agree to are made very plain, and the sorts of things that make them uncomfortable.

For example, here’s the EU suggesting that research into planetary boundaries should be a focus, and the US and the G77 disagreeing. No talk of any kind of boundaries please.

We are committed to working with and fostering collaboration among the academic, scientific and technological community, in particular in developing countries, to close the technological gap between developing and developed countries, strengthen the science-policy interface as well as to foster international research collaboration [including in the area of planetary boundaries – EU; US, G77 delete]

Here’s the Vatican getting cold feet about recognising the sexuality of young people, and removing references to sexual health.

We reaffirm our commitment to gender equality and to protect the human rights of women, men [and adolescents – Holy See delete] to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, [including sexual and reproductive health – Holy See delete], free from coercion, discrimination and violence.

The US is particularly cagey, here failing to agree that changing lifestyle habits will be necessary, that decoupling from economic growth might be a good idea, or that developed countries should take a lead.

We reaffirm that [sustainable consumption and production (SCP) is one of the overarching objectives of sustainable development, and recognize that – US delete] fundamental changes in the way societies consume and produce are indispensable [to achieving global sustainable development – US]. [We therefore commit to change unsustainable consumption and production patterns, and eventually reach an absolute decoupling of economic growth from natural resource use. – EU; US delete] We acknowledge the wide disparities in consumption levels and patterns between rich and poor and between developed and developing countries. In this regard, all countries should promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, [with developed countries taking the lead and – US delete] with all countries benefiting and learning from that experience so as to move all our societies nearer to a sustainable future for all.

On it goes for 80 pages. Still, if that looks bad, wait till you see the text after the NGOs have weighed in too.

The UN processes are democratic and inclusive, but therefore completely neutered by compromise. It can cobble together a show of unity, but only around the lowest common denominator. As the draft shows all too clearly, these sorts of discussions are completely unable to overcome the selfish interests of nation states, each with their own agenda, each out to protect themselves.

I’m sure Rio +20 will agree a statement, and politicians will hail it as a big step forward. They always do. Meanwhile, the rest of us should just quietly get on with the task in hand – creating resilient towns and cities, working locally, starting on our own doorsteps. A sustainable future will have to come from the bottom up. On the evidence of UN summits, it cannot possibly come from the top down.

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