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Compromising situations at Rio+20? Just say ‘I do’


International conferences always end up in compromise – that’s inevitable. The Rio+20 conference is no exception. The problem here is the type of compromise.

Good compromises involve all sides giving something, and all sides getting something in return. At Rio there is an obvious deal that ought to have been done. Countries with rapidly growing economies and impacts on the environment should change the way their economies are developing, towards lower-carbon and conservation of ecosystems – a ‘green economy’.

At the same time, since many of those countries, such as China, aren’t rich (in per-capita income terms), there should be some financial help in return from countries which are – in order to get them through the short-term costs that a green economy path is bound to involve.

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But the negotiators in the long process of talks and documents that has led up to Rio have not sorted out or prepared the way for a deal of that sort. They have negotiated compromise in a very different and much less productive way, using two main methods.

The first method is simply to cut out of any draft agreement mentions of issues which are considered too difficult. Failure to agree on the role of a ‘UN Commissioner for Future Generations’ to add a longer-term perspective into decision-making, for example, was easily resolved by simply deciding not to create such a post. It just disappeared from the text.

The second method is to avoid any amendments (such as those put forward by the European Union) to establish definite targets or timetables, and then to add in words which dilute any hint of a commitment.

The paragraph on company reporting is a good example. It refers to the idea that companies should report on their environmental performance, not just how they are getting on financially.

But the text from the negotiators says they “encourage” such reporting – not “require” or even just “incentivise” it. Then they add “where appropriate”, which implies it often isn’t. And then they don’t say “integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle” – but just “consider integrating”.

A lot of the negotiators’ text is like that: important ideas are mentioned, but the small print is full of words which avoid any definite commitments.

It’s like a marriage ceremony in which “I do” is replaced by “I will encourage the setting up of a process to consider the possibility”.

But that’s just the professional diplomats so far. Political leaders are getting involved in Rio today. They still have the opportunity to overrule their negotiators, improve on the current compromise text, and provide some leadership, commitment and energy. It’s just possible.

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