After about two years of discussions and six months of more focused negotiations facilitated by the UN, Brazil has now taken over the fate of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. As the host of the conference, the country is now responsible to make use of the coming five days as a home stretch to secure an international consensus on a final draft declaration. For some obscure reasons, the country has decided to conclude discussions before the highest political decision-makers finally arrive on Wednesday. Considering that these leaders will be in Rio for three days, one can wonder why there is such a rush to conclude negotiations and what would they be expected to work on. Surely Dilma Rousseff has not invited more than a hundred world leaders to learn how to samba and sip Caipirinhas (the local cocktail) on Copacabana.
Honestly, I would not care much about the agenda of these heads of states during their stay in Rio if it were not for the method used by Brazil to meet their own timeframe. One has to concede that the government was not helped by the messy draft document that they inherited at the end of the last official UN session on Friday, with only one third of the text successfully agreed upon. So Brazil decided to step up and accelerate the pace of the discussions by cutting out some some proposals altogether. During its announcement of the process forward, the country declared that it would no longer tolerate the use of brackets as a technique of negotiations (brackets are used to express reserves with a section of a document). Understand: agree to a wording or leave it out.
If this could make sense to ensure that a document is indeed adopted at the end of the conference, some of the paragraphs retained seem to make only a dubious contribution to sustainability. In relation to climate for instance, the document denounces implicitly the EU aviation pollution levee (see in a previous blog why such a reference would be misleading) and refers to the sustainable use of traditional energy sources (once you burn coal/gas/oil, you only end up with no more fuel but more carbon into the atmosphere. How one can manage this in a sustainable manner remains a mystery to me). But perhaps more importantly, the concerns raised by the EU and other countries, as well as by many NGOs, relates to the section of the text related to reforming the UN structure to deal more adequately with sustainability.
Among other cuts, Brazil took the initiative to delete the language related to a proposal for an ombudsperson for future generations. Originally promoted by young people and NGOs who argued for the establishment of ombudspersons for future generations at all levels of governance, the previous versions of the text had watered down this proposal repeatedly. The latest draft on Friday only referred to the will to “further consider” (instead of deciding to establish) a weaker proposal related to this new institution. Despite this already extremely compromised text, Brazil decided that it could not bother further discussing this idea (despite it being referred in 1987 Brundtland report and 1992 Agenda 21). The whole paragraph is now gone.
Brazil also removed the reference to an upgrading of the UNEP promoted vehemently by the Europeans over the past months. As the UN institution dealing with the environment, the UNEP would see its mandate expended and its structure reformed, but would retain the status of a program within the UN family. While it is supposed to represents the voice of the environment within the UN system, UNEP will remain at a lower status than the existing organizations dealing with other thematic.
In other sections of the text, the Brazilian compromise is also disappointing: for instance in relation to the reference to the right to water which is now weakened or to the importance of sustainability reporting by companies, a proposal put forward by companies themselves as it would create an incentive for businesses to adopt more resource efficient practices.
A quick read through the entire document illustrates well the current weakness of the text: out of closed to 300 paragraphs, only 7 of those express a new commitment (we counted only those reading: “we commit”). Greenpeace concluded their own preliminary review of the text with the following assessment: “if broadly adopted, the latest text from the Brazilian government would condemn the world to a future of pollution, plunder and destruction”.
For Brazil, it must be one or the other: either the country decides to lead the discussions forward by trying to ensure agreement on the proposals currently on the table, or it chooses an easier path and decides to aim at the lowest common denominator. In the later case, calling the result of this conference “the future we want” would be nothing else than a fraud. Let’s hope that the country realizes its key role and stop dealing with the draft text as subtly as if it was cutting a hedge, chopping out full paragraphs.
Picture: Leila Mead/IISD
About the authorSébastien Duyck
Passionate environmental advocate, PhD student (Human Rights and Environmental Governance). Following particularly UNFCCC, UNEP and Rio+20 processes