UNITED NATIONS -- This summer's sustainable development conference in Brazil, known as Rio+20, is emerging as an overt attempt by U.N. officials to shift away from the divisive politics of climate change to a broader debate on the green economy and how to bring it to developing nations.
On the heels of arguably little movement on an international climate pact during U.N.-sponsored talks in South Africa, Mexico and Denmark, officials here now say they view Rio+20 as a way to get past intractable policy fights between developed and developing nations over greenhouse gas emissions cuts, to focus on core issues like trade and technology.
The head of Brazil's delegation during the most recent talks, in Durban, South Africa, last week made it clear that his role in the Rio de Janeiro conference will be to press the conversation elsewhere. Sustainable development as part of an emerging new economy, not climate change, will be the featured attraction this summer, in what appears to be a directed strategy to enter new territory during U.N. negotiations.
"Climate change ... has very strong resistance from sectors that are going to be substantially altered, like the oil industry," Ambassador Andre Correa do Lago said. "Sustainable development is something that is as simple as looking at how we would like to be in 10 or 20 years."
The diplomat went on to admit that the political situation in the United States is a key concern, as contenders for the Republican nomination to the White House have vied with each other over the past year to distance themselves from policies to trim greenhouse gases. Add to that Capitol Hill's failure to deal with warming, as well as discord with more advanced developing nations like China and India, and what seems to be emerging here is a strong desire for a new approach.
Enter what they hope will be the new angle: Rio+20. The new tack in strategy was evident last week during a U.N. workshop on Rio, where senior U.N. trade officials met to start hashing through their "zero draft" document for trade proposals that could be on the table this summer.
Lucas Assuncao, a Brazilian at the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and a key figure in pre-Rio talks, said U.N. officials are working fast to put together a "bold" trade proposal for Rio. Ideally, he said the zero draft would address "green protectionism" as well as trade opportunities, subsidies and finance for developing countries looking to expand renewables and other technologies.
"We do not yet have an international consensus on how to pursue a green economy," he said during the trade workshop, adding that he would like to bring to Rio a "stronger" proposal on the subject that would help spur the green industrial economy.
'Shift on par with the Industrial Revolution'
"We are talking about a shift on par with the Industrial Revolution," he said. "We need to help the losers cushion losses and adjust, and to ensure that the poor and marginalized do not become more so."
Assuncao says current language in the draft -- a one-liner that says "create no trade barriers" -- will do little to give countries guidance on how to become players in the green economy. "Many countries are pursuing sustainable development (in their eyes) by using trade barriers," he said. "A one-line declaration won't work."
What the draft would address beyond that one-liner remains to be seen, with ideas from A to Z still on the table. Among the topics that could make the final cut for negotiations are proposals that would: prod nations to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, reduce trade barriers against energy-efficient technologies, end marine capture fishery subsidies and limit agricultural subsidies.
Most ambitiously, some say a sustainable energy trade agreement could emerge from Rio to address all these matters, in addition to governance, with one proposal suggesting the U.N. Environment Programme be given World Trade Organization-style authority to settle trade disputes.
Also possible is a clause on intellectual property rights, to address how countries might collaborate on patents to speed up deployment of green technologies. This area seems ripe, given recent news that economic espionage may be afoot between China and the United States related to wind turbine components (ClimateWire, Jan. 26).
Marianne Schaper, of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said how green trade commitments might be meshed with WTO rules, which are empowered by a range of regional and bilateral trade pacts, will be a key concern. She asked the following question during a presentation here, without supplying an answer: "Is the WTO rulebook sufficiently equipped to deal with [the green economy]?"
According to the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), a group that tries to shape international trade to advance sustainable development, what should emerge from Rio to address these questions is a stand-alone sustainable free trade pact that could create authority aside from the WTO. ICTSD would like to see Rio produce "a plurilateral agreement either within or outside the WTO, including a critical mass of major economies and emitters," Schaper said.
Also up for debate is an idea from Pakistan on a pact that would promote green industries in the developing countries by, in part, "reorienting [the] intellectual property regime towards diffusion of technology," she said. And Switzerland wants the conference to look at value chains stretched across different countries, to create a framework for easing dissemination of environmental products.
An international 'green' trade agreement?
Among the ideas Schaper offered as "food for thought" is creation of a green trade forum at the United Nations to spark ideas about potential trade disputes related to green technology. She said the forum could look at restoring non-actionable subsidies in the WTO, taxation for "environmentally harmful activities," how to enable transfer of technology and bilateral investment agreements.
"We have a lot of submissions," she said of the zero draft document. "But nothing is concrete."
To Assuncao, the current language in the zero draft is "too modest." So he is taking feedback from diplomats at this point and hopes to go public in the months ahead with a more aggressive alternate.
The initial response from some of these far-reaching proposals seemed to be wariness. Laura Anderson, an international relations adviser at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told Assuncao in an exchange that the WTO and the treaty that created it, the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), already have a system for resolving trade disputes, to include environmental matters.
"WTO has created rules and a committee to evaluate environmental aspects of trade" under GATT, she said. "They have been successful."
Assuncao responded by saying U.N. officials "are trying to offer a bridge" between Rio and WTO. But he also admitted the Rio conference runs the risk of "having a big splash with conflict" if whatever emerges fails to get the two sides communicating.
Still, if there was a clear theme from Assuncao, it was the notion that WTO law "only gets us so far" on issues like subsidies, domestic content, green standards, investment agreements, intellectual property and border measures.
"The WTO does not solve everything," he said, arguing that the WTO has no system for countries looking at "environmental externalities" beyond standard trade disputes. "There is too much uncertainty."
He added: "They go there [to the WTO] not to think about the green economy. It's just not created for that."
Click here to view the U.N. page on Rio and the green economy.
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