Over to you, pioneers!

A lot of noise – but no progress in Rio 


Rio de Janeiro/Berlin, 22 June 2012. The international community is currently incapable of promoting the urgently needed transformation towards a sustainable society with the requisite speed and commitment, says the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). „We might well be moving towards the end of such mammoth meetings as these. Although they make a lot of noise, the very fact that so many problems are covered means that no single problem is tackled resolutely,“ says WBGU chairman Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. „The future of humanity is too precious to be left to this ongoing game of nation-state Mikado. What we now need are pioneers from all spheres of the world community.“ The WBGU‘s deputy chairman Dirk Messner ob- serves: „It was a very disappointing summit compared to the spirit of optimism that characterised the 1992 Earth Summit – and given the urgent need to take swift action to avoid irreversible environmental crises. The final declaration is not exactly a source of inspiration.“ 


Pioneering alliances becoming increasingly important


In the WBGU‘s view, what are now becoming increasingly important are alliances between pioneering countries, alliances between cities, engagement from citizens, companies and scientists, a trailblazing spirit from pioneers of change, and examples of successful projects that promote change towards sustainability. Against this background, Germany‘s energy-system transformation (Energiewende) is becoming all the more important as an international signal of the feasibility and benefits of climate-friendly development.


Green transformation outside the negotiations


There were two parallel worlds at the Rio+20 conference. While the nations‘ leaders were unable to send out a convincing signal on a future-oriented restructuring of the world economy, many events in the conference‘s supporting programme showed that the transformation towards sustainability is already in full swing. In the WBGU‘s view, the political negotiations are lagging behind these real developments. For example, over 50 developing countries committed themselves in Rio de Janeiro to ambitious sustainability initiatives in the energy sector – in concert with many private companies. These initiatives take their orientation from the three goals of the UN High Level Panel on Energy up to 2030, which did not make it into the final declaration: (1) to provide all people with universal access to modern energy, (2) to double energy efficiency, and (3) to also double renewable energies‘ share of the respective country‘s energy portfolio. A group of African governments, the World Bank and some major private companies agreed specific initiatives to protect the natural capital of African countries. Nobel laureates declared the willingness of scien- tists to give their support and presented roadmaps for a low-carbon transformation. Cities forged pioneering alliances, and companies presented the latest environmental technologies. 


Crisis of leadership in global sustainability policy


The international community was unable to take decisive action. At the G8, the EU and the USA were negotiating in different directions, and the tensions between newly industrialising and developing countries led to further blockades. The result is an international crisis of leadership and confidence, a „G-Zero World“ in which no leading power effectively is taking the initiative and no coalitions capable of taking action are emerging. The EU‘s attempt to form a sustainability coalition for a more meaningful final statement also failed. The negotiations produced only minimal consensus to avoide the fiasco of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. The global transformation towards a low-carbon, sustainable society is already taking place, yet international policy-makers are currently showing no visible will to participate. Leaders of major international organizations – like Pascal Lamy (WTO), José Angel Gurria (OECD), Achim Steiner (UNEP) or Kandeh K. Yumkella (UNIDO) – also expressed their frustration at the feeble, faint-hearted final declaration. They expressed their concern about the state of the multilateral system and were supported in this by the protagonists of the 1992 Earth Summit, such as Gro Harlem Brundtland and Maurice Strong.


Transformation without global rules


„The international government leaders still bear the historical responsibility for creating common rules governing the speed of transformation. The latter must be greatly accelerated – because nature doesn‘t negotiate, and tipping points in the ecosystem could soon be reached,“ says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. „Policy-makers should create the framework within which the pioneers of change can develop their creativity by setting globally respected guard rails.“


Failed attempt to create a UN special agency for the environment


Upgrading the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to the status of a special agency, along the lines of the FAO, is one of the key, necessary reforms of the UN system in the WBGU‘s view. Such a breakthrough was not reached in Rio de Janeiro. Although the final document calls on the UN General Assembly to adopt a number of improvements (e.g. giving UNEP universal membership and increased, stable funding, and allowing it to develop UN-wide environmental strategies), this would not give the UNEP anything like the clout deemed necessary by the WBGU. 


Reform of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development insufficient


There will not be a Council for Sustainable Development, an idea that had been broadly discussed in the run-up to the Rio+20 Conference and is also recommended by the WBGU. Instead, the international community decided to set up a „high-level political forum“ to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development. No decisions were made on exactly how the forum was to func- tion. There will be negotiations on the new forum‘s detailed mandate before the next UN General Assembly, but expectations are currently low, given the lack of urgency shown in international negotiations so far. Here, too, it seems that new initiatives are only likely to come from pioneer countries, civil society and science. The nation states also failed to agree the appointment of an ombudsman for future generations.


Soft statements on the „green economy“


The concept of the „green economy“ – bringing together environmental protection and poverty eradication – is codified in the final declaration, but remains vague. The participants failed to agree timetables for a transformation towards sustainability that include reporting obligations for nation states, as recommended by the WBGU. Even so, there was a call for partnerships between countries. The WBGU believes that such pioneering alliances offer attractive opportunities to demonstrate the advantages of a „green economic policy“. 


New goals for sustainable development


A process was agreed in Rio de Janeiro for developing a comprehensive set of goals for sustainable development, supplementing or replacing the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000. All countries are expected to embrace this list of goals for sustainable development. The WBGU regards the selection of suitable global development goals as important transformation milestones. They should be developed as soon as possible.


The WBGU: serving global change politics


The German Federal Government set up the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) as an independent, scientific advisory body in 1992 in the run-up to the United Nations Con- ference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit). The WBGU‘s task is to analyse global environmental and development problems and to develop recommendations for action and research in the search for solutions to these problems.


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