(published in: Financial Chronicle, 27 June 2012)

by Praful Bidwai

Even the most incurable optimists among the globe’s spin doctors will find it difficult to dress up the Rio+20 summit of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development as a halfway modest success. Indeed, it represents a failure of epic proportions, which pro­ves that the world’s leaders have learned virtually nothing during the 20 years that have passed since the landmark 1992 earth summit, which negotiated path-breaking conventions on climate change and biodiversity and made commitments to poverty eradication and social justice.

Worse, the leaders are deluding themselves that the solutions to the problems of fighting runaway global warming, ecological degradation, energy insecurity, drinking water depletion, and pollution of air, land and water on a gigantic scale lie in slogans such as the “green economy” and putting a monetary value on natural resources.

The post-1992 global record is dismal on both social and ecological issues. There has been some poverty reduction, but, poverty eradication remains a distant dream. The number of resource-poor people and ecological refugees continues to grow. The world has failed to protect marginalised people and promote social justice. Global greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 48 per cent and are now growing by 5 to 6 per cent a year — when they should plateau this year and decrease by 20 per cent by 2020 (over 1990). The world has lost over 300 million hectares of forest and desertification is growing. There is a relentless loss of biodiversity as corporate greed drives a massive global land grab and depredation in fragile ecosystems.

The climate change talks showed that the rich industrialised countries of the north are simply not prepared to shoulder their share of responsibility for emissions mitigation, leave alone enabling the global south with finance and technology to avert emissions or adapt to climate change. Rio+20 revealed a further slide from the gains made earlier, in part because of the global great recession and lack of political will.

Thus, last week, the south had to fight hard just to restore equity, poverty reduction and the long-accepted principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR) to the conference agenda. But, contrary to what the Indian government and sections of our media claim, this was at best a symbolic or rhetorical gain. This is unlikely to be translated into reality, unless there are substantive negotiations that counter the toxic legacy left by the last three climate summits, at Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban, which in effect undermined these very principles. Such talks appear highly unlikely in the very near future.

Going by past experience, none of the impressive-sounding 692 individual pledges made by governments for projects that cut fossil fuel use, boost renewable energy, conserve water and alleviate poverty means very much. Nor does the $513 billion promised in funding by governments and corporations.

Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron were absent from Rio, showing that the leading countries of the north are not ready to take the plunge to move to low-carbon development ba­sed on reduced consumption of fossil fuels and aggressive promotion of renewable energy — although, the circumstances are propitious, especially for the second. Nor are the Brics nations, which dominated the Rio proceedings, willing to take the initiative. The Basic group, comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China, worked closely at Rio with the G-77 developing-country bloc and managed not to isolate themselves, as they did at Durban. But, that’s hardly a positive achievement.

At the end of the day, Rio+20 produced two operative ideas based on the UN environment programme (UN­EP) document that informed the deliberations: The “green economy”, and treating nature as a series of “products” and “services” to be traded in “commodities and futures markets”.

Attractive as it might so­und, the “green economy” co­ncept assumes that the existing drivers of growth, primarily corporations, can continue with the present neoliberal paradigm of accumulation of capital; all they have to do is adopt better practices such as energy-saving, making more economical use of resources and promoting renewable energy. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.

But, this misunderstands the basic logic of the capital accumulation process and the corporate search for profits at the expense of the environment, which has brought the world to the present pass. Capitalism, especially in its neoliberal avatar, is simply incompatible with sustainable development, which does not aggravate climate change.

The UNEP document does concede that there is “widespread disillusionment with our prevailing economic paradigm, a sense of fatigue emanating from the many concurrent crises and market failures experienced during the very first decade of the millennium…” But, what we are dealing with is not “market failure”, but, a “market system failure”. As ecological economists put it, it means “expecting results from the market that it cannot deliver, like long-term thinking, environmental consciousness and social responsibility”.

Commodifying and financialising nature is even more problematic. Nature involves a series of complex relationships between living systems, which the market cannot comprehend. As the outstanding economic historian argued in his classic, The Great Transformation, land, water and air are fictitious commodities. Putting an artificial value upon them in order to trade them risks destroying not just nature through rampant overexploitation, but society itself.

That’s the lethal legacy which Rio+20 has left behind.

(The writer is an independent commentator on political and economic issues)