Duncan Hamilton: Welcome to Rio and a masterclass in failed leadership
OUR leaders would certainly prefer that the failure of the Rio+20 Summit pass without comment.
So let’s disappoint them. Let’s instead expose the collective failure of leadership to the fullest public airing. This, after all, was the summit on poverty and environmental protection described by the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, as “one of the most important global meetings on sustainable development in our time”. In the event, it wasn’t even the most important global meeting of the week.
For whilst in Mexico, the G20 agonised over the eurozone crisis and embraced the need for immediate and concerted international action on global debt and anaemic growth, over in Rio, world leaders provided a masterclass in failed leadership.
The necessary shift to green technology foundered both on the refusal of developing countries like China to turn away from fossil fuels and the failure of the developed world to provide access to capital. The much-trumpeted “Sustainable Development Goals” remain, shall we say, an item for future refinement. Obama, Cameron and Merkel didn’t even show up. Those world leaders who did, came to protect their own national interest. The Rio agreement has been roundly decried as fatally undermined by the absence of targets and timetables. So, action on a short-term currency and debt crisis, but not on imminent environmental and human disaster. Odd, don’t you think?
Why did Rio+20 matter? First, as the name suggests, it was an attempt to revisit pledges first made at the Earth Summit in 1992. Since then, for all the undeniable progress in some areas, the overall global response has been wholly insufficient to deal with the gathering environmental storm. Despite what we agreed in 1992, the world now has 7 billion people, a figure which will grow to 9 billion by 2050. A fifth of people live on $1.25 a day or less. A billion-and-a-half people have no electricity, two-and-a-half billion don’t have a toilet and a billion go hungry daily. Greenhouse gases (yes folks, they haven’t gone away) continue to rise with China now accounting for nearly a quarter of emissions. On current trajectory, nearly a third of all known species will become extinct. Scared and depressed? You should be.
Everyone knows we also need economic growth, hence the fusion of growth and preservation contained within the concept of “sustainable development”. And yet our actions betray time and again that the development we pursue remains emphatically unsustainable.
Are there explanations for the failures at Rio? Of course, there always are. The division between developed and developing countries remains stark. That said, countries like Brazil have shown infinitely more commitment than an American president scared to commit in election year and European leaders who ran a mile from a floundering process. But the divergent voices were familiar and predictable. Tragically, yet again, we allowed those differences to torpedo real gains.
I don’t ignore the progress. For example, the possible introduction of GDP+ is good news. It seeks to wean the world away from an obsession with GDP growth as the sole determinant of national success and instead include “natural capital” and a wider sense of wellbeing as part of the success of a country. That means measuring things like air quality, water supplies and the environment. Fair enough, but hardly compensation for ignoring the herd of elephants in the room.
Given we failed to make sufficient collective progress from 1992, it is difficult to see why that should now change in this age of austerity? Nick Clegg, however, remains more upbeat, claiming that future progress “is about political will”. But do we have it?
Certainly, the major western powers have no difficulty in routinely turning the screw and exercising influence all around the globe when matters of strategic interest (ranging from oil and regional stability to terrorism) are concerned. Why? Because those are seen as immediate and compelling threats to our way of life and national interest. The point is simply this – it’s long past time to add impending environmental catastrophe to that list. The environment is the ultimate “public good”. It now requires to be elevated to the very heart of foreign policy.
Do you really think the full might of international diplomacy with a unified EU front and in concert with the US (especially post Obama re-election) couldn’t break the deadlock? Don’t be fooled – the issue is not that we can’t do this, but rather that we are simply not yet willing to make it a sufficient priority. We won’t spend our political and diplomatic capital on these issues which remain, for too many governments, problems for another day. That’s why so many are so angry about Rio+20.
These summits will continue to fail until our governments understand the stakes in this environmental Russian roulette. Enlightened self-interest demands an urgent response to the degradation of the environment and the dangerous global imbalance of wealth. Unforgivably, we just wasted yet another last chance. «
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 4 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: North east