I think I’m burned out on Rio+20 already

The giant, carnivalesque global environmental summit Rio+20 started rolling this weekend and the official, high-level talks start tomorrow.

Unless you’re really following environmental affairs, this grand meeting may not even hit on your radar. And, to be honest, it probably shouldn’t.

It seems much of the environmental community has low expectations for this year’s conference. Environmental problems are as intractable as ever. Nations continue to struggle with economic matters.

As the name implies, Rio+20 is part-anniversary, part-debrief, part-”let’s find a way forward” from the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit officially known as the the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development. Certainly in the last 20 years there have been successes, particularly at the local and national level, but on the international stage, collective action on the environment has largely been ineffective (and I’m being kind).

Though I wish it were otherwise, I don’t have much faith in the international system. Certainly I think attempts to workout problems collectively are necessary and applaud people who will spin their wheels and beat their heads against walls. But I see fundamental flaws as well. The system is broken and it seems to like it that way.

So Rio+20 will likely be all show with a rather weak finish. Sunita Narain, head of the Centre for Environment and Science, has a salient commentary in the centre’s magazine Down to Earth.

But, truth be told, I’m already burnt out on trying to monitor Rio+20 from India. My own thoughts are below:

The international regimes, from Rio+20 at one end of the spectrum to the WTO at the other, remain based on a premise that undermines attempts at collective action. In these arenas, nations are still competing with each other. China and India wish to secure their right to development. The U.S. and Europe wish to see “common but differentiated responsibilities” thrown out. This is the “usual polemics” as you rightly suggest. The usual, nationalist, polemics.

Perhaps that’s because the underlying motivation remains “usual” as well. Nations fundamentally look out for their national interests, a position that hasn’t changed since Stockholm.

Of course, we can (and should) argue that the global environment is a national interest for each individual nation. Problems of global commons exploitation, degradation of common heritage, vanishing biodiversity, transnational pollution, etc. all have national level impacts.

But when environmental problems — even these global ones — remain framed as national interests, they will accordingly be stacked up against (if not subordinate to) other national interests such as GDP growth rate, debt service, infrastructure, capital accounts, corruption, political harmony and so on.

I would argue that even one of the greatest (if now fleeting) successes of global environmental cooperation, the Montreal Protocol, was largely the product of briefly aligned national interests, rather than any urgent, international belief that the world would be a better place if everyone were protected from the side effects of degrading ozone.

As long as the environment remains a negotiable item for individual nations — as long as it is on the ledger with a laundry list of other national concerns — any forum on “sustainable development goals” or green accounting or the like will simply be an arena for negotiators to angle for the best outcome for their governments and corporations and (occasionally) citizens.

To me, that’s hardly a recipe for international, collective action. I don’t see how that can achieve lasting change.

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