Post date: Friday, 22nd June 2012

There is good news from Rio, but it will take time to manifest

Sir Paul McCartney

Knights to the rescue: Sir Paul McCartney joined Sir Richard Branson and Greenpeace to launch their 'Save The Arctic' Campaign.

It would seem to be good news: over 50 governments have promised new energy strategies at Rio+20, and there have been promises of over $50bn of investment to double the share of global renewable energy and the rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030.

In addition, the World Bank yesterday announced that 57 countries, the European Commission and 86 companies have agreed to draw up "natural capital accounting" rules.

Private sector clean energy commitments

The clean energy announcements were among 100 commitments to his “Sustainable Energy For All" initiative proclaimed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday. Its aim is to get clean energy to 1.3 billion people currently without any energy at all.

Amongst the donors are the US, which has promised £2bn in grants, loans and guarantees plus public-private technology.

Microsoft said it would become carbon neutral, partly by imposing an internal “carbon tax" and smart metering within its branches across 100 countries. This will include air travel by its employees. Its senior manager for environmental sustainability, Josh Henretig, said there was no reason why the whole IT industry could not do the same thing.

The list of commitments announced by Ban Ki-moon also includes:

  • a ten year $50Bn environmental business goal from the Bank of America
  • the World Bank Group doubling the leverage of its energy portfolio
  • rock band Linkin Park's campaign urging world leaders at Rio+20 to end energy poverty
  • the European Commission's "Energizing Development Initiative" to bring energy services to 500 million people by 2030
  • India’s Energy and Resources Institute will bring solar lighting to households in several developing countries
  • Support from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

But the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh criticised the leaders of developing countries, saying there was "little evidence" that they were actually doing anything to make available additional finance and technology to help the developing world reduce carbon emissions.

So with all this apparent good news, why has WWF called the summit "a squandered opportunity... that does not set the world on a path toward sustainable development", and why did young people attending the sustainable development summit stage a mass walk-out, while chanting "this is not the future we want"?

A lack of political commitment

Everyone attending the Rio de Janeiro event testifies to it being terminally uninspiring. Activist Bill McKibben called it "a formulaic bureaucracy-fest" that promises nothing. He quotes one analysis of official documents that governments have agreed to “encourage” and “support” actions 148 times, but only said "we will" actually do something on three issues.

"Difficult though it may seem, we have to summon the imagination to balance the costs that we will incur in the present with the benefits that will accrue to future generations," appealed Singh.

The end fossil fuel subsidies campaign

Much public protest has centred around the call to end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Over one million people have signed a petition and the issue has been thrust onto the official agendas of the summit several times.

Greenpeace says that as a result there is now "incredible new momentum in the fight to take on the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on our governments".

Save the Arctic

Greenpeace has also been highlighting another issue: turning the Arctic Circle into a global reserve along the lines of the Antarctic, to protect its resources from exploitation and therefore environmental disaster.

Its high-profile campaign was launched by Richard Branson and fronted by many celebrities including Paul McCartney, Robert Redford, John Hurt, Penelope Cruz, Jude Law and Thom Yorke. These and 93 other names, inscribed on an "Arctic Scroll", are to be planted on the seabed at the North Pole.

"A ban on offshore oil drilling and unsustainable fishing would be a huge victory against the forces ranged against this precious region and the four million people who live there," said Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo.

The issue was top of those coming out of panel discussions between civil society experts, scientists and members of the public. Others were: restoring degraded lands, securing water supplies and avoiding polluting oceans with plastic materials through education and community collaboration.

Natural capital accounting

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg's speech on Thursday focused on valuing natural capital, and he concluded by saying “if in 10, 15, 20 years’ time we no longer assess our wealth and our prosperity in the narrow snapshot terms of GDP alone, but give people a clear, easily understood measurement of our long term prosperity and [the] sustainability with which we use our resources, I think we can genuinely start changing things for good".

Work on this has begun. The World Bank yesterday announced that 57 countries, the European Commission and 86 companies have agreed to implement "natural capital accounting". They include Puma, Wal-Mart, Unilever, Woolworths Holdings and Standard Chartered, as well as the US, Britain, France and Germany. China and the conference's host, Brazil, failed to sign up.

"Once you start measuring things you realize something and start managing for it," said Puma's board chairman Jochen Zeitz.

It is likely to take up to 10 years before corporate and government accounting reflect environmental profit and loss, according to Pavan Sukhdev, a board member of US NGO Conservation International and a former Deutsche Bank official.

He put a figure of $2.1 trillion on the cost of pollution and natural assets for which the top 3,000 companies currently fail to account in their balance sheets. It rises to $4 trillion, or about 6.7% of global GDP, for the whole world's corporate sector.

Sukhdev said that common reporting standards are likely to be ready in three to five years, with implementation coming within about seven years.

But he said that it wasn't just losses that would show up with such accounting: "You could get 10, 20, 30% extra to your GDP because you'd be finally measuring the services of nature," he said.

There is a striking contrast between politicians' lack of courage in taking concrete action, and in many cases (David Cameron, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel) even failing to attend the conference, and the willingness of many private companies to grasp the nettle.

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, a company which has made bigger strides than most in trying to turn itself around to become sustainable, made a visionary speech in which he said: "We are entering a very interesting period of history where the responsible business world is running ahead of the politicians. The political climate is very difficult and to some extent paralysed".

Blame for this was squarely placed on the Eurozone and banking crises, and the US political scene.

Nevertheless, Polman is optimistic: "Over the next two to three years I believe there will be enough critical mass with groups of countries and companies starting tangible projects."

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor

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