The Rio Plus 20 Conference (or Summit) is scheduled to be held on 4-6 June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is being described within UN circles as the last policy opportunity for promoting green governance and institutional reform. Unfortunately the political climate does not seem favorably disposed towards supporting the ambitious goals of advancing a “green economy” as provisionally laid out in the Conference agenda.
Lessons from the past are not comforting.
Prior successful large scale international environmental conferences – such as Stockholm 1972 and Rio 1992- enjoyed public support, a well-developed agenda with deliverable treaties and policy proposals, and the absence of major power political cleavages.
Past successful technological transformations akin to the green economy – such as the Industrial Revolution in early 19th century England, the spread of free trade in the 1870s, and the reconstruction of Europe and the world economy in the aftermath of World War II – rested on a widely shared common purpose, political support by a transnational network of influential actors, and strong treaty obligations and international organizations capable of coordinating national policies.
None of these broad set of political preconditions for success appear to be present yet for Rio Plus 20. Governments and publics are preoccupied by the Arab Spring, restoring financial health, the war in Afghanistan, and terrorism.
The ‘green economy’ concept remains contested. Beyond the problem of defining a ‘green economy ‘, countries will compete over access to the commanding heights of the new economy, and thus are divided on their anticipated benefits from it. Some governments support the green economy approach, anticipating that their economies may benefit from a new epoch of green technology: including Japan, S. Korea, Germany, China, and possibly Brazil. Others are ambivalent – such as the USA and Russia – in large part because of the divided nature of their industrial sector which continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels and on manufacturing products for the older technology. Still others, including many in the developing world, are fearful that new technologies will be more competitive than their exports, that they may not enjoy cheap access to the new technologies, and that they may not contribute to job creation in their societies.
Green markets are still immature. The various green sectors remain too small in their respective countries to be able to command significant political clout. International institutions, and in particular the envisioned reforms so far discussed in the Rio Plus 20 preparatory process are insufficiently bold to be able to sway governments to change their dominant economic policy paradigms.
The Conference planners are thus faced with a dilemma, and few realistic options. The dilemma is that bold action requires more political support than is presently available. The challenge is how, with less than a year, and realistically more like 8 months, can sufficient political support be created to induce governmental support for developing a serious roadmap for a green economy?
What options are available to claim a success at the conference? One option of course is to recognize bleak political realities, and delay the conference until the political climate appears more felicitous. Another option is to try to change those realities by building the domestic support for the conference, through efforts to mobilize green sectors worldwide. A third option is to plan for the day after the conference, and develop conference outputs that will continue to advance the longer process towards Sustainable Development and a green economy from June 7th.