“We are not here this week just to talk to each other,” was Prime Minister Gillard’s closing statement to her plenary speech. “We’re here to decide, to agree – and then to act.”
But the watered-down and non-binding nature of the final agreement signed by Heads of State meant that real actions coming out of Rio were few and far between.
Instead, Governments and civil society alike used the summit as a platform to announce and build support for new and ongoing sustainability initiatives – often outside of the U.N. framework.
Korea was there to garner funding for its Global Green Growth Institute, a think tank designed to support developing countries with access to expert decision-making on sustainable development. The organisation was established two years ago in Korea to support domestic development of renewable energy and other green technologies and industries.
It proved successful enough for Korean President Lee Myung-bak to elevate its status into an international organisation with the capacity to to provide green-focused technical and economic expertise to countries in the Asian region and around the world. The Australian Government thinks the project is promising enough to support it to the tune of $15 million.
Prime Minister Gillard kept her focus on the Asia-Pacific region with Australia’s other funding commitments flowing from Rio: $25 million to help Pacific Island countries address illegal fishing and minimise the destruction of marine ecosystems, and $8 million for the Coral Triangle Initiative to help countries in the region to sustainably manage marine and coastal resources.
The Australian Government also used Rio+20 as a platform to make some announcements about Australia’s aid budget allocation. Ms Gillard pledged $97 million for the Civil Society Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Fund, $50 million to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, and $500,000 over two years support the role of women in building and restoring peace in the Asia-Pacific region.
The text of the actual agreement signed by Heads of State didn’t contain any new concepts, but the Prime Minister and Australian negotiators talked up four areas where they felt progress had been made.
The Prime Minister used her final press conference in Rio to praise progress on sustainable development goals: think Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) but with a green tinge. Because there’s no detail and no timeline, there’s still confusion among UN-folk as to whether they will be incorporated into the MDGs (which are due for renegotiation and renewal in 2015) or separated into their own silo. However, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested they would be a unitary process, running together.
The ‘green economy’ was a major theme of the discussions and while no-one can really define what it means, the Australian delegation spoke of it as a push to move beyond GDP as the sole reporting measures of a country’s progress. This is something Australia had already committed to domestically. The last federal budget included $10.1 million for the Department of Environment to develop sustainability indicators and reporting for Australia, along with sustainability impact statements of new policy proposals.
Another major issue in Rio was the role of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP). Since its inception, UNEP has been hindered by its status as a mere ‘program’, with less weight than bodies such as the World Health Organisation. Some developing countries, led by Kenya and other African nations, spearheaded a push to transform UNEP into an official organisation in order to increase its funding and influence within the U.N system. But the United States and Russia strongly opposed the move, and it was blocked. Australian negotiators said the process for strengthening UNEP was underway, and while they supported elevating the body’s status, the process should happen in stages and shouldn’t be rushed. The Prime Minister said Rio+20 had made progress on strengething of UNEP’s role as the world’s ‘authoritative voice on the environment’.
Finally, Prime Minister Gillard stressed the gains that Rio+20 had made for ocean protection, referring to language in the declaration that will assist Australia’s push against subsidies that encourage overfishing, especially in the Asia Pacific region. There had been hope that the summit would finally make some progress on protecting the ‘High Seas’ – the area of ocean beyond individual countries’ exclusive economic zones. But while the final declaration talks about the issue as ‘urgent’, it defers discussions to to the 69th Assembly of the General Assembly. This will take place in two years’ time.
“The new compromise paragraph on high seas fails to recognise the urgency of the oceans crisis, delaying any decision for possible action to be taken until 2014,” said Greenpeace. “Even then there is no guarantee that the outcome would be to negotiate a new agreement capable of turning the tide on the Wild West exploitation of the High Seas.”
The Prime Minister denied the claim from civil society and some European states that the summit had been a wasted opportunity. “I do believe that over the time, the things that have been agreed here will make a difference to our world’s environment,” she said. “There have been some decisions that will affect the future.”
But given the scale and pace of environmental destruction, many scientists have warned that the “decide not to decide” outcome of the summit will have lasting and irreversible consequences.
“In order to avoid catastrophic tipping points, we need to effectively manage key Earth system processes, and we need to do it now,” wrote Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University in a 2010 paper entitled ‘Planetary Boundaries’.
“Whether or not humanity will be able to stabilize climate within safe levels depends upon our ability to reduce emissions and constructively manage a number of critical natural systems on the planet … Unfortunately, in this drama there are no second chances. Nature does not do bailouts.”