Europe at Rio - the added value
by David Baldock
Do we need another sprawling global conference on the future of the planet? As the relentless tides of UN process come over the horizon, even those most confident that Rio may be a turning point can be forgiven a little caution.
Experience in Europe however, does suggest that set-piece events can have real value even if they are only a waymark in the long process of moving forward an agenda. The timetable for agreeing the momentous EU 20-20-20 climate and energy package in 2008-09 was accelerated because of the ultimately disappointing Copenhagen conference. Big events and rather arbitrary deadlines can be crucial in catalysing changes in policy and governance in the EU, with only 27 Member States, compared with the nearly 200 expected at Rio.
One theme where a turning point certainly is required is the Green Economy. There has been an impressive build up of reports, not least from UNEP and the OECD, arguing that the time has come to pay more attention to global resource limits, to build a low carbon economy, value and husband our natural resources and plan for alternatives that create employment, as well as curbing environmental and social damage.
Some of what this might mean in Europe already is being explored: the respective Roadmaps for a Resource Efficient Europe and a low-carbon economy by 2050, alongside new thinking about natural resource accounting, innovation and greening agriculture policy. The need to curb damaging subsidies has been stated clearly and there is some, although still insufficient, acknowledgment that a green economy rests on healthy ecosystems and investment in nature as well as low carbon technologies. The challenge in Rio, as in Brussels, is to move to the implementation stage, confronting short term and competitiveness objections and addressing the concerns of those in the south, who fear that reducing our environmental footprint means locking-in an uneven pattern of development. There are several ways in which the current downturn is the opportunity to plan for a different economic balance and invest in sustainable infrastructure.
The well received proposal from Colombia for the adoption of new universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could be a helpful tool in this process - if they are shared in a new way between North and South. SDGs could be a frame for addressing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production in the rich world in an explicit way and reduce the barriers facing governments ready to move ahead of the pack. As part of a global compact, they could lead to more specific targets and commitments of the kind needed to make progress on oceans, agriculture, mining and other frontline questions.
There are many ways in which Europe could contribute to progress in Rio but responding positively to this proposal from the South is one.