Governments May Not Be Key Players In Rio+20 Talks

By Peter Bjerregaard

“This is no way to run a planet,” wrote Todd Stern, American chief negotiator on climate change in a letter to former President George W. Bush in 2007. He stressed that just like you can’t run a company through large meetings in which every opinionated shareholder participates, you can’t solve global challenges by inviting roughly 200 countries to a conference, each with their own extensive agenda. But that’s exactly what’s happening in Rio.

Companies take matters into their own hands

At a meeting at Copenhagen University earlier this month, John Kornerup Bang, climate chief adviser at the global shipping company AP Moller Maersk, correctly identified the biggest challenge at Rio+20: “The biggest challenge is not lack of technical solutions or lack of knowledge about the situation. The biggest challenge is the ability of countries to reach agreement,” said Kornerup Bang. He also stressed the need for companies to take initiative themselves.

In the face of the inaction of governments across the globe, companies are taking matters into their own hands and creating their own sustainability agendas. For example, starting on July 1, Microsoft will start to tax itself. For every ton of carbon dioxide that the main global offices and data centers produce, they will pay a tax that will be used to buy carbon dioxide certificates, which will make Microsoft carbon neutral. As Microsoft's climate chief Rob Bernard, says: “While governments have an important role to play, we hope that there is an advantage to moving faster than them.”

Further illustrating the trend of companies implementing UN goals instead of governments is the growing support for the UN Global Compact. Almost 7000 companies have now signed up for the UN Global Compact, which encourages companies to voluntarily make strides in areas such as human rights, anti-corruption, and the environment.

Jacob Torfing, Professor of Network Management at Roskilde University, recognizes this trend and emphasizes that decision making processes of the international community are not flexible enough to handle the current global challenges: “The problem facing the planet, is that there is no global governance. The current UN system reflects the world anno 1945, and it is simply not geared for consensus-based and fast decisions.”

Torfing also agrees that new global networks, such as the companies involved in the UN Global Compact, are beginning to bypass governments. These networks have grown exponentially in recent years and, unlike the UN system, they include communities in which the participating parties oblige each other to action. Another example of these new networks is the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. In this group, some of the world’s largest cities have come together to exchange possible solutions to climate problems.

Gravel in the machinery: only small policy steps possible at Rio

The Rio+20 Conference officially starts on Wednesday. Credit: United Nations.

Rio can help advance more of these sustainability initiatives that encourage corporations and cities to become more sustainable. One proposed plan is the Natural Capital Declaration, which would require financial institutions to incorporate natural resources into their reporting of services and products. However, the more difficult negotiations will involve getting the countries present to come to a consensus on government actions they should all take towards sustainability.

After the last three disappointing climate summits in Durban, Cancun, and Copenhagen, the expectations for this type of consensus at Rio+20 are at historic lows. The fundamental disagreements between China, the U.S., and Europe, and between developing countries and industrialized countries, have the potential to keep the chief negotiators up late before any agreement can be presented on June 22.

One of the big obstacles is how the current political system should be reformed so that it best supports sustainable development. According to observers, the most likely outcome is a slight strengthening of the UN Environment Program (UNEP). A stronger UNEP could help achieve actual implementation of policy goals. Currently, no agency exists that holds countries accountable to their promises, and the results are consequently disappointing. This lack of enforcement gained renewed relevance prior to Rio+20. To address this problem several scientists, countries, and NGOs have also pushed for the creation of new bodies such as an UN Environmental Security Council or an Ombudsman for future generations. However, these ideas may be long shots.

The idea receiving the most attention is the so-called Sustainable Development Goals. The idea is based on the UN Millennium Development Goals, which world governments agreed on in 2000. The UN Millennium Development Goals demonstrated that the world community can actually set goals and reach many of them. Among the proposed Sustainable Development Goals are targets for food security, targets for access to water, and sustainable production and consumption models. What the specific outcome of the negotiations will be is still uncertain, but according to Troels Dam Christensen, coordinator of the Danish 92-group (an association of 22 Danish environmental and developmental NGOs), and participator at Rio+20, the idea may very well gain momentum at Rio+20.

“Global sustainability is included at this stage in the negotiating text, but the content is still unknown. It is crucial that the focus of the targets does not get too narrow, and that it actually leads to sustainable solutions,” says Dam Christensen.

Another plan for Rio+20 is the abolition of international subsidies to fossil fuels. And that's not small change. According to the International Energy Agency, global subsidies will amount to more than $600 billion in 2012.

Since G20 leaders in 2009 called for the elimination of subsidies, more countries have followed suit. Rio+20 provides the ideal framework for such an international declaration. Dam Christensen says: “I think an agreement on terminating subsidies to fossil fuels can be reached, but the question is whether we can agree on concrete action. The important thing is of course that it is not just empty words. Ultimately it's about doing everything that works in the transformation towards a green economy.”

Peter Bjerregaard is a Danish journalist and climate analyst who is reporting on the Rio+20 summit.