Rio+20: Furthering Sustainable Development or Greenwashing the Global Economy?

By Michelle Pressend · 22 Mar 2012

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Picture: Cayusa
Picture: Cayusa

In June this year, the United Nations Conference of Environment and Development (UNCED) popularly known, as the Rio Earth Summit will commemorate 20 years. It was originally held in Brazil in 1992. You may recall that in 2002, South Africa hosted the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), so this year also marks WSSD+10, though it doesn’t seem to have the same prominence as Rio+20.

The Rio Earth Summit was one of the most significant global environmental gatherings as world leaders recognised that co-operative global action is essential to halt environmental destruction and social inequality. This conference acknowledged that economic and social progress depends on the state’s natural resources and that effective policy measures were required to prevent environmental degradation.

Rio produced a number of documents to chart a course for sustainable development. These included the Rio Declaration, which contained a set of principles designed to commit governments to environmental protection and responsible development, and Agenda 21, which was considered the “blueprint” for sustainable development and multilateral agreements on biodiversity, desertification and climate change.

Furthermore, developed countries committed 0.7% of their gross national product to official development assistance. With the exception of some Scandinavian countries that have partially realised this commitment, this obligation has simply fallen by the wayside for most developed nations.

Overall, despite the noble agendas of the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, the sustainable development agenda has come up against major global challenges. The most notable of these is globalisation.

The consequences of globalisation - as a result of ever expanding production and consumption - have not only resulted in devastating destruction of the environment, which include air, water and soil pollution, but has also led to the commodification of the natural commons and public environmental goods and services. In other words, these resources and services have been made a tradable “product” for profit.

UNCED unfortunately lacks the commitment to resolve these structural problems, particularly in poorer countries where weak regulations have been unable to discipline the behaviour of multinationals and challenge their lack of commitment to sustainable consumption patterns.

But sustainable development also means different things to different people. For some it means financial sustainability, for others it means environmental protection and limited development and for others it means working out the trade-offs between the environment and related social and economic dimensions. 

What is needed and what is still lacking is an understanding of sustainable development as a fundamental basis in policy formulation in terms of fairness, equitable use of natural resources and ethical values that will lead to much-needed transformation in society. Thus, twenty years after the milestone Rio Earth Summit, the situation for our planet and her people, particularly the poor and the vulnerable, is worse.

In fact, the official discussion paper for Rio+20, entitled the ‘Future We Want’ (also called the Zero Draft), acknowledges the multi-dimensional nature of the global crisis, particularly as it relates to finance, the economy, energy and food security.

As a result, two important objectives of Rio+20 are to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development as well as address new and emerging challenges. The Conference will focus on two themes: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and (b) strengthening the institutional framework for sustainable development.

The much-touted green economy is recognized as a vehicle to achieve sustainable development, eradicate poverty and address the multiple crises. However, despite the rhetoric of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, it is becoming clear that much of what they say is simply rhetoric as their conception of the green economy primarily focuses on the intersection between environment and economy – with social goals largely ignored.

Post the heady euphoria of COP17 in Durban, which managed to mainstream climate change in South Africa if nothing more, how does our country shape up to the sustainable development agenda?

Since a Green Economy Accord was adopted prior to COP 17 between government, labour and the business sector in an effort to take forward the ‘New Growth Path’, the South African government will likely be seen as ahead of the pack at Rio+20. South Africa’s accord makes 12 commitments in sectors such as renewable energy, waste, transport, building and construction. It has set the goal of creating 300 000 jobs from the green economy.

While the economic and job creation potential of the accord may sound astounding, an important question to ask is, “How green is green in terms of environmental integrity, social equity and decent sustainable jobs?”

Job creation already seems to be undermined.

In a January 2012 edition of Cosatu Today, Tony Ehrenreich, Cosatu’s Western Cape Provincial Secretary, expressed concerns about the regulations that South Africa’s Department of Energy has put in place in relation to the importation of components in the solar industry. He argued, “This regulation is leading to a flood of imports that have already seen local solar companies close down, with the resultant job losses”.

Also worrying is the fact that South Africa’s biofuels industrial production model is based on large-scale, energy-intensive mono-crop commercial agriculture. Contrary to what is being fed to the public by industry experts, this is not a ‘greener alternative’.

Other concerns are that the so-called “green economy” may foster inappropriate technologies, such as, genetically modified crops under the guise of food security and also quite problematically promote nuclear energy, as part of a low carbon energy strategy. South Africa’s National Development Plan, which emanates from Minister in the Presidency, Trevor Manuel’s planning commission, already problematically endorses shale gas fracking, which is being promoted by energy companies, but that is strongly objected to by environmentalists.

Thus, South Africa’s Green Economy Accord, similar to the National Framework for Sustainable Development, may appear to promote social and economic needs while considering environmental implications, but in reality it is entrenched in an economic system that encourages growth and competition.

So despite South Africa having hosted two major UN Summits, the WSSD and more recently COP 17, these have in no way translated to a better life for all her citizens.

During the Rio+20 Summit, civil society organisations will run an alternative and parallel People’s Summit under the theme “Capitalist Crisis, Social and Environmental Justice”. In a social movements gathering from the 24-29 January in Porte Alegre, Brazil, many of the participants that came mainly from developing countries were strongly critical of the “green economy”, which they interpreted as synonymous with further “commodification” or “financialisation” of nature. Many South American movements refer to the green economy as “green capitalism”.

Even the churches that have historically always worked with the poor have taken a position on this.

The Church Development Service (EED), Germany, together with other organisations from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America strongly criticises the Zero Draft as failing to recognize that the capitalist system is the result of increased poverty and food crisis, the climate crisis, the resource crisis, the financial and economic crisis and the crisis of global governance. They argue that the Zero Draft widely ignores social justice, human rights and eco-justice but opts to grow and to expand the existing economic model, greening it and transforming all ecosystem services to commodities and market products.

Other groups such as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) see the green economy as an opportunity for more just economic development and stress the involvement of trade unions in defining the green economy on the principle of equity and not just an economy for the rich. Similarly, in South Africa, the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa's (NUMSAs) call for a "socially owned" renewable energy sector has been widely reported by the media. According to Cedric Gina, president of NUMSA, workers must lead the transition to a green economy.

After a series of disappointing UN Summits, Rio+20 provides another opportunity to re-evaluate the global corporate agenda, which so many governments have bought into.

What is needed is for those most affected by environmental degradation and climate change to demonstrate the political power of grassroots organisation and for solutions to respond to their needs in a genuinely sustainable manner.

The call from the Rio+20 People’s Summit is ‘Come reinvent the world’! Despite green-washing policy frameworks, the South African government is yet to respond to this call.

Pressend coordinates the Trade Strategy Group (TSG) at the Economic Justice Network and Global Network Africa at the Labour Research Services in Cape Town. She is also an independent socio-political analyst on global issues related to trade, environment and climate change.

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