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Launching A Green Economy

Summit in Rio de Janeiro will set the course for international efforts on sustainable development for years to come

by Cheryl Hogue
May 21, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 21

Credit: iStock
Photo of Christ the Redeemer statute over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Credit: iStock

Top buzzwords on the international policy scene in 2012 are “green economy” and “sustainable development.” The use of these terms is likely to peak next month. That’s because in June, world leaders, business executives, environmental activists, farmers, indigenous peoples, and others from throughout the world will converge on Rio de Janeiro for a major global conference. There, they will discuss how to bring about an economy that sustains natural resources while lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

That event, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, is largely focused on what the UN calls “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.” In addition to strong economic performance, the concept of a green economy emphasizes equity within and among generations. It strives to balance social, economic, and environmental goals in both public- and private-sector decisions, according to the UN.

Negotiators preparing for the Rio meeting are keying in on seven areas linked to a green economy: jobs, access to sustainable energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, access to clean water, protection of the oceans, and disaster readiness worldwide. They are seeking to establish a system for measuring progress in these areas. They hope to create sustainable-development indicators that go beyond the traditional yardstick of gross domestic product. The talks are also exploring how to rejigger the UN bureaucracy to help bring these aspirations to fruition worldwide.

“It will be one of the biggest United Nations conferences in history,” says Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s top official. More than 50,000 people from around the world are expected to come to Rio to attend the official meeting or any of the hundreds of related events. The activities start in early June and run through June 22.

The UN says 120 heads of government or state—meaning presidents or prime ministers—are planning to be at the June 20–22 summit portion of the Rio conference. But the UN isn’t saying which world leaders are expected to attend. What’s sure is that U.S. President Barack Obama isn’t among them—at least not yet.

Ban is urging Obama to come to Rio. “President Obama’s role will be crucially important,” Ban said at a recent speech in Washington, D.C. “I hope he will participate.”

But Obama’s top climate-change negotiator, Todd D. Stern, indicated to reporters last month that there were no plans for the President to go to the Rio conference. That decision may not be final; Obama did not announce that he would attend a 2009 climate-change summit in Copenhagen until days before that gathering.

The June meeting continues a series of major UN conferences with an environmental bent that have taken place every decade or so since 1972. The most notable was the 1992 UN Conference on Environment & Development, more commonly called the Earth Summit, which was also held in Rio.

The impact of the meeting held 20 years ago continues to reverberate internationally. Agreements forged at the 1992 Earth Summit led to development of many global policy initiatives, including several on chemicals. One is a treaty to eliminate persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—the Stockholm Convention. Another, the Rotterdam Convention, requires that countries receiving imports of chemicals banned or restricted elsewhere give consent before accepting the shipments.

Yet another result of the Earth Summit is a broad policy blueprint, completed in 2006, that developing countries can use in creating domestic chemical regulatory schemes, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). In addition, world leaders meeting in 1992 in Rio signed major treaties on climate change and protection of biodiversity, accords that have led to further negotiations and agreements in these areas.

Harking back to the success of the 1992 meeting, UN officials nicknamed this year’s conference Rio+20. This somewhat odd moniker refers to the city hosting both gatherings and the two decades separating the events.

As the start of the June conference approaches, negotiators hammering out agreements for Rio+20 have their work cut out for them. An overarching problem is that countries remain divided on the green economy concept.

Most industrialized countries “have embraced the green economy as a new road map for sustainable development,” according to a UN statement. “Many developing countries are more cautious, asserting that each country should choose its own path to a sustainable future and that a green economy approach should not lead to green protectionism or limit growth and poverty eradication.”

The green economy concept has a large number of supporters, including the U.S., the European Union, and South Korea, as well as Brazil, Kenya, and a number of other developing countries, says Lalanath de Silva of the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

But a handful of Latin American and Caribbean nations sees the concept of a green economy as a threat, says de Silva, who directs an initiative on public access to information, participation, and justice at the institute. They view this notion as merely valuing the environment in monetary terms so it can be commercialized for profit. They say nature has infinite value, has no price, and is not for sale. These countries have convinced some others in the developing world to oppose use of the term “green economy” and stick with the concept agreed to in 1992—sustainable development, de Silva tells C&EN.

Some citizen organizations are also raising questions about a green economy. For instance, the ETC Group worries that several companies, including biotechnology and chemical corporations, will monopolize the technology needed to make the world economy more environmentally sound. This international organization—also known as the Action Group on Erosion, Technology & Concentration—instead backs “socially responsible developments of technologies useful to the poor and marginalized.”

Rio+20 marks a potential turning point in how the world addresses global environmental challenges, says Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. The previous global gatherings were based on a top-down international governance structure that dates to the 1950s and ’60s and is outdated for solving 21st-century problems, he says. Most on-the-ground action that is needed to bring about sustainable development needs to be done at the national level or lower, including in the private sector, he says.

Scherr’s group is spurning what it calls “ineffective treaties and abstract plans of action” as outcomes for Rio+20. Instead, it hopes that countries, cities and states, corporations, organizations, and others make concrete, measurable commitments that will help bring sustainable development to fruition, Scherr says.

There are signs that Rio+20 actually could start a shift in inter­national environmental discussions. Preparations for Rio+20 broke new ground when, for the first time, the UN accepted written comments from the public as it drafted an initial negotiating text, de Silva says. Submissions came from industry, including chemical manufacturers, and a wide variety of citizen organizations and environmental groups.

Among those providing input was the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA). The chemical industry has a key role to play in providing innovations needed to achieve sustainable development, says Lena Perenius, who is representing ICCA at UN negotiations leading up to Rio+20. She is executive director of international chemicals management at the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC).

ICCA backs the concept of different green economies that are tailored to a country’s or region’s specific circumstances rather than a single, global green economy, Perenius tells C&EN. Industry will play a vital role in creating green economies—and governments need to have policies in place to enable private-sector innovation, she says.

In addition, ICCA wants leaders gathering at Rio+20 to commit to strengthening SAICM, says Gregory G. Bond, Dow Chemical’s corporate director of product responsibility and cochair of the international association’s chemicals policy and health leadership group. The chemical industry also hopes to get more recognition for its role in providing solutions that support sustainable development, he tells C&EN.

But the chemical industry also needs to deal with the problematic substances it has produced over the years, says Mariann Lloyd-Smith, senior adviser to the International POPs Elimination Network. This coalition of environmental and citizen groups focuses on chemical management issues and POPs.

To help achieve sustainable development, chemical makers, in addition to innovating new compounds, need to stop producing substances that can’t be managed safely, starting with manufacture through use to disposal or recycling, she says.

Lloyd-Smith says Rio+20 needs to acknowledge that sound management of chemicals underpins the goals for sustainable development, including access to safe water, protection of the oceans and biodiversity, and equity among people and generations.

Credit: UN/Michos Tzovaras
Then-president George H. W. Bush spoke at the 1992 Earth Summit, but President Barack Obama has given no indication that he will join other world leaders in Rio in June.
U.S. President George H.W. Bush spoke at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Credit: UN/Michos Tzovaras
Then-president George H. W. Bush spoke at the 1992 Earth Summit, but President Barack Obama has given no indication that he will join other world leaders in Rio in June.

Another key issue under discussion for Rio+20 involves public access to information. This stems from a declaration adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit that in part states: “At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities.”

Negotiators are considering a proposal that would launch talks on a new global treaty to ensure public access to information governments use to make environment-related decisions. This has stirred up fear within U.S. companies—including chemical manufacturers—that a global deal on information sharing could threaten intellectual property and confidential business information (C&EN, March 19, page 30).

The idea of a worldwide treaty on access to information has backing from the EU, Mexico, and Norway, de Silva says. The U.S., Australia, Canada, Japan, and Russia oppose it, he says. “It’s a bit curious as to why these big democracies are opposing this,” de Silva says, especially given that they have strong domestic laws on access to information, such as the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Perenius says ICCA backs the concept of transparency and openness in public dialogue. But implementation of this principle should be national, adapted to different countries’ situations. “We don’t need a global convention,” she says.

But de Silva says businesses, including chemical manufacturers, may find it to their own benefit to support a treaty that gives the public greater access to information. If U.S. or EU standards for public access, which safeguard intellectual property rights and protect confidential business information submitted to governments, get spread around the world, the global competitive playing field would become more even, he says.

For instance, Chinese companies can use FOIA to gain access to some of the information their U.S. competitors submit to the U.S. government, including chemical information provided to the Environmental Protection Agency, de Silva explains. But U.S. businesses can’t do the same in China because that country does not have an open-records law, he says.

“It is in the interest of everybody to have uniform transparency, participation, and accountability laws across the world,” de Silva says. Greater public access to information would likely help reduce government corruption that is rampant in some parts of the world, he adds.

Perenius, meanwhile, stresses the need for whatever agreement comes out of Rio+20 to protect intellectual property rights, especially as part of calls for transferring cleaner technology to developing countries.

Credit: UN photo/Michos Tzovaras
Cuba’s then-president Fidel Castro attended the 1992 Earth Summit.
Cuban President Fidel Castro at the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment & Development (Earth Summit) in Rio.
Credit: UN photo/Michos Tzovaras
Cuba’s then-president Fidel Castro attended the 1992 Earth Summit.

Rio+20 will also focus on how the UN bureaucracy needs to change to help the world achieve sustainable development. Countries generally agree that the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) needs to be strengthened. The debate centers around how to make that happen, de Silva says.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner is lobbying hard to get his program upgraded to an agency. Such a move within the UN system would be similar to the 1989 elevation of what was then the U.S. Veterans Administration to a department whose head is a member of the presidential Cabinet. The EU is backing promotion of UNEP to a higher rank within the UN system.

On the other hand, the U.S. and many developing nations are seeking reforms by strengthening UNEP’s functions, not by changing its standing within the UN, de Silva says. This is consistent with U.S. policy, which opposes the creation of new UN institutions.


Another international organization getting scrutiny in the Rio+20 talks is the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which was formed after the 1992 Earth Summit. The commission currently reports on its work to the UN Economic & Social Council (ECOSOC). There are two main suggestions for reforming the existing structure between the commissions and ECOSOC. Mexico is leading a push to reform and strengthen ECOSOC so that its work focuses on all three pillars of sustainable development—economics, social issues, and environment, de Silva says. The EU, meanwhile, is lobbying for replacement of the commission with a Council on Sustainable Development, a bureaucracy that would be on par with the influential UN Human Rights Council, he says.

In addition, negotiators are considering a proposal to create a UN High Commission on Future Generations. Functioning as an ombudsman, the commission would evaluate actions by the UN and determine whether the UN takes into account the impact these actions would have on future generations, de Silva says.

But the talks on the green economy and the UN bureaucracy remain bollixed up, with little agreed-upon language even after many long days of haggling. On May 4, negotiators meeting at UN headquarters in New York City concluded what was supposed to be their next-to-last round of talks before final discussions in Rio on June 13–15 ahead of the formal summit’s start. However, negotiators have scheduled another five-day session in New York City that starts in late May “to bridge differences that have hampered progress to date,” according to the UN.

Despite the state of the talks with the conference just weeks away, Sha Zukang, secretary-general of Rio+20, is optimistic that negotiators will successfully craft a deal by mid-June.

“I’m looking forward to some hard-fought outcomes that reverse our unsustainable course and drive us forward to a future with peace, dynamic economic and social development, universal social well-being, and a healthy and equitable environment for present and future generations,” Sha says.

“For a better future for all of us and our children,” Sha continues, “this is where we need to go.”


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