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Will world leaders get serious at Rio?

Get seRIOus +20 hot air balloon © WWF / Chris ChaplinTo send a strong message to world leaders at Rio+20, WWF inflated a giant hot air balloon with a banner reading "#GetSeRIOus+20" © WWF / Chris Chaplin

The world’s political leaders, the big-hitters, are sitting down today in Rio for the UN conference on sustainable development. Negotiations have been going on for months to get to this point, so what are we likely to see over the next vital couple of days…

The process leading up to Rio+20 has been tortuous. For months, we’ve heard complaints about the lack of direction given by the conference’s UN secretariat. Then the Brazilian government picked up the reins as chair of Rio+20, and made a notable impact.

What they did was take all the ‘bracketed’ issues out of the text altogether. Text gets bracketed when it’s controversial – and here in Rio, it’s proved to be controversial when it’s been ambitious and looking to change the status quo.

And so the controversies have been addressed through compromise and capitulation in varying measures. The result is a weak text, lacking in much ambition in terms of clear actions and dates, and it doesn’t measure up to the vision we have of a safe world for both people and nature.

Brazil did not accept any more new text unless it mustered consensus from all countries (which is as likely to happen as a sloth winning the 100 metres in the Olympics).

The interesting part comes with the responses to the text that we see from different countries and political blocks

The G77, a political grouping of the least developed countries who work together to increase their impact and influence (the ‘77’ is misleading as the group actually numbers around 130 – sometimes joined by China, sometimes not), are pretty happy with the text.

This is mainly because they don’t want environmental protection to mean any impact on their prospects for economic growth.

And if the G77 are to be cajoled into developing green economies, they want the rich countries (the OECD) to pay for it.

Here’s the paradox. In the context of poverty, depletion of natural capital and climate change, poor countries have the most to lose from acting against a shift to truly sustainable development. But on the other hand, looking through the narrow framing of economics and the pursuit of growth, they see the sustainable agenda as a threat, and so seem to prefer the persistence of the status quo.

So it’s left to the EU, joined by countries like Switzerland, Norway and Japan to push for more stringent targets and the stronger environmental regulation that requires. But the G77 have pushed back, and the EU backed down. The US doesn’t want anything that suggests they will have to commit more financing, especially for the UN.

And so the negotiations became polarised. The result is a race to the bottom, where weaker levels of ambition are political wins, and the loser is the lack of progress towards a safe and equitable world, to say nothing of the natural resource and systems that we all depend on.

There has been a failure of leadership here – ambitions were low, and politicians have done little to empower their negotiators to increase it.

As world leaders sit down together in Rio, they have the opportunity, the chance, to demonstrate true leadership – by showing they understand the seriousness of the situation.

Despite the goodwill of so many, the political noises here in Rio and the rumblings of the Eurozone crisis bringing on another global recession, I suspect there are few who are willing to be so bold.

WWF will continue to push for an ambitious outcome, and long after this conference has passed, to work with friends, colleagues and partners across the world to shift us to a sustainable development pathway. In the meantime, the next two days or so will be hard work. I’ll keep you updated.

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