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Rio reflections: the politically possible versus the scientifically necessary?


It’s 10 days since my plane touched down in the UK after my return from Rio+20. Only 10 days have passed but, as the world quickly moves on, the immediacy of my experience and perspectives diminishes. Still it’s important to use that distance to reflect on what happened at Rio and what we can learn from it for the immediate and long-term future.

David Nussbaum, WWF-UK chief executiveDavid Nussbaum, WWF-UK chief executive

In answer to the simple, common question “How was Rio?”, the considered answer would have to be “It depends on your perspective”.

It wasn’t only NGOs who were caught on the hop when Brazil closed the text down on the Monday night, before the ‘high level’ segment had even started. As chair of the conference, Brazil was able to direct the process, but governments, including the UK, were expecting nail-biting negotiations down to the wire. As we were too. But it wasn’t to be. So how did things develop as they did at Rio – and were our reactions to the outcome justified?

There’s one experience from the Rio+20 conference that has particularly stayed with me. It wasn’t a momentous conversation, but it clarified one of the problems we face that’s not often acknowledged.

Talking to a senior government negotiator reminded me of how we sometimes fail to recognise the different thinking frames that shape the perspectives of others.

For NGOs, this may mean not understanding the political boundaries that governments operate in, or the business imperative that motivates business.

For governments it can mean not appreciating why NGOs may criticise them.

And for business, it can involve exasperation with the lengthy bureaucracy that both the public and third sector are sometimes guilty of. And so on.

As it became evident that the level of ambition and, to be frank, bravery exhibited by governments was being reduced to the lowest common denominator, NGOs became more vociferous in their criticism of the outcome document, which was rather poignantly named ‘The Future We Want’. Many NGOs labelled it ‘the future we don’t want’.

WWF described Rio+20 as a “squandered opportunity”, and its outcome an agreement that does not set the world on a path toward sustainable development. In characteristic style, Greenpeace referred to Rio+20 as a “failure of epic proportions.”

So how come a serious, responsible and senior government negotiator found such perspectives puzzling?

In a quiet moment, against the general clamour of the conference, the negotiator turned to me and asked why, after so many hard years of difficult negotiations, we were slamming them just as agreement was reached – and an agreement which he judged to be about as good as was likely to be achieved.

Many of those who work for governments had been toiling tirelessly on Rio+20, particularly over recent months as the conference approached and pressure intensified.

They had found wording to enable agreement to be reached on a number of contentious issues where national interests often place different countries in opposing positions. So why were NGOs condemning, just as they reached such a compromise – and especially when there could have easily been no agreement at all?

I explained my analysis of the different perspectives. Although I appreciated, particularly with this first-hand view of the inner workings of the negotiations, how much effort even reaching this agreement took, it was in no way commensurate with the level of action needed from a planetary perspective.

The science is clear. We have to revolutionise our current development model, where we’re living beyond the capacity of our planet, and don’t equitably distribute the rewards and resources. And we have to do so quickly if we’re to avoid the more serious and expensive potential consequences of delay.

“You are judging this agreement against what you see as politically possible; I am assessing it against what is scientifically necessary”, I said.

I saw a look of recognition spread across his face, as this distinction of reference point sunk in. The negotiator I was speaking to was also from the UK. Like me, he had been fortunate enough to have an education, to travel, to have access to the internet. We even work on some similar issues. But our perspectives still come from different standpoints.

Such differences are multiplied when it comes to reaching mutual understanding and agreement between the representatives of virtually all the countries of the world. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the challenges that Rio+20 faced made true success in the outcome document so elusive.

We need to improve the way we work together and understand each other if we are to make the progress we need in addressing the global challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and the destruction of habitats.

WWF believes we have to work with partners from many different walks of life to achieve the most change we can. This means working not only with those who already have relatively good standards of practice, but also with those who need substantially to change the way they work, in order to see a positive impact for both people and the environment.

Not everyone agrees with this approach, and we are sometimes criticised for being too close to government or to business. However, I only need to look at the impact we’ve had through working with companies, like HSBC, M&S, SAB Miller and Coca-Cola, to see the improvement in water management and preservation of priority river basins, reducing climate impacts and improving sustainable agriculture practices.

But enough of reflections! Despite all the work that preceded Rio+20, it’s now that the hard work begins if we are to realise its potential.

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