Activists worry about impact of vague Rio+20 meeting on climate talks

Climate change activists have begun to openly worry that the upcoming Rio+20 U.N. mega-conference on sustainable development has abandoned a grand vision for fighting global warming.

In their fear of tainting the sunny Rio de Janeiro summit with the dark clouds of the ever-troubled international climate negotiations, analysts note, national and U.N. leaders have avoided even speaking about the two bodies in the same sentence. The result, many say, is that Rio is in danger of pushing climate change to the far margins of the global environmental discussion.

"Climate change is the third rail of the Rio conference," said Andrew Light, a senior fellow specializing in international climate policy at the Center for American Progress.

But by refusing to discuss reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the context of sustainable development, he said, both forums fail to embrace new ways of thinking about growth. "It's a missed opportunity that we artificially exclude climate from a process that can't ignore carbon," Light said.

Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center and longtime climate policy expert, said the problems start at the top.


"The conference seems to lack defined goals, but even worse, there seems to be no big-picture vision among the world's top leaders, both in office and former heads of state, about the global need to deal with climate change and deforestation and ocean acidification and all the other huge environmental problems," Bledsoe said. "There's no big-picture thinking. Hello, climate is the biggest of the pictures."

The June 20-22 summit is the follow-up to the United Nations' 1992 Earth Summit, also held in Rio, which helped put climate change on the world stage. That was, in fact, the convention that created the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) body that its successors seem anxious to avoid.

Grand visions, few concrete goals

The 20-year anniversary is being billed by the United Nations as a place where leaders, governments, the private sector and environmental groups "will come together and shape how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want." Yet preparations have been marked by agenda fights and stalemates that have puffed the negotiating text from 19 to 200 pages of grand, sometimes competing, pronouncements yet few concrete goals (ClimateWire, May 8).

"It's unclear how this big text is going to turn into something that makes change on the ground," said Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy program at the World Resources Institute think tank. "There's so much happening on the ground in the area of low-carbon and green energy ... but there's so much on the agenda, and that makes it difficult to get anything concrete."

Meanwhile, when asked directly what could come out of Rio that help move along the often stuck climate negotiations or even shake up the entrenched rich-versus-poor country dynamics there, leaders appear to duck for the nearest exit.

U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, the Obama administration's top official on global warming, said recently "climate isn't going to be a big focus of Rio, certainly [not] in a way that would be relevant to the negotiations," and declined to speak further about the Brazilian summit (ClimateWire, April 18). And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C., in April, instead chose to answer an unasked question: whether Rio will be negotiating climate change.

"This specific meeting of Rio+20 will not be the venue for climate change negotiations," Ban said. "Climate change has a separate, internationally United Nation-mandated process of negotiation."

Analysts say leaders' vague answers underscore their reluctance to speak publicly about how Rio and the climate negotiations might actually help one another. The summit won't have a hand in bridging the gap between countries' pledges to cut carbon and what is needed to keep global average temperatures below a 2-degree-Celsius rise, and there are no expected discussions about how to raise a promised $100 billion annually in climate aid -- two of the most pressing questions now in the UNFCCC.

Still, experts said, with some smarter thinking, leaders could still use Rio as a platform to feed into the climate talks.

"The professional negotiators are doing everything they can to keep these two separate," said Andrew Deutz, who directs international government relations for the advocacy group the Nature Conservancy. He, too, accused the United Nations of a lack of leadership, saying "the vision thing is not there" and that the summit still lacks specific definition and goals.

But, Deutz said, "To me, there's a meta-narrative about how are we going to get serious about having a sustainable planet." If Rio can become the place for some specific commitments between countries, companies, regional governments and others to demonstrate what the "green economy" means in practice, he said, it could start to shift the model of climate cooperation.

A 'bottom-up' path to low-carbon development?

Reid Detchon, vice president for energy and climate at the U.N. Foundation, which advocates for the United Nations, acknowledged the agenda troubles, and said the discussions leading up to Rio reflect the difficulty of reaching a consensus in the international community. He also defended Ban from critics who say it is U.N. leadership that has been most lacking.

"It's important to remember, this is an activity of the member states. I think the secretary-general has identified a number of objectives and a vision, most notably on Sustainable Energy for All," Detchon said, referring to a U.N. goal of ending energy poverty by 2030 while doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency as well as the share of renewable energy in the global mix.

Detchon noted that the goal of Rio has never been a global agreement like the climate talks and said "looking for a big agreement misses the point here." Instead, he argued, by focusing on goals like enacting the Sustainable Energy for All agenda, countries are able to move away from the "top-down" approach dictated by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol emission-cutting requirements and toward a "bottom-up" path of low-carbon development.

That, he said, would be a direct help to the climate talks enabling countries to "take on these issues in a fresh and invigorating way."

Light agreed. He noted that the most recent UNFCCC agreement in Durban, South Africa, calls for a new global deal for all major emitters to cut carbon, but it does not take effect until 2020. That means the urgency for focusing the rest of this decade on "bottom-up," on-the-ground approaches to cleaner development is crucial, and seeing countries unite behind Sustainable Energy for All goals would be an important start. "Because they barred climate discussions from Rio, I do think this is the best thing they could possibly do," he said.

The Bipartisan Policy Center's Bledsoe said he believes there is still time for the Rio summit to successfully blend and push forward the climate agenda. But not much.

"I think there's an opportunity for the opinion leaders of the world, the Bill Clinton and Tony Blairs and Nelson Mandelas and their counterparts in Asia and elsewhere to take hold of the global vision for sustainability. But right now, we're stuck in this pattern of individual treaty negotiations that seem disparate and ineffectual instead of a broad vision for how the world has to deal with the challenge but take advantage of the opportunities," he said. "I don't see that coalition coming together, and I guess I'm disappointed that it has not yet. And concerned."

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