Posts by: Hanna Thomas

I have been a naughty tracker. For today, on the last day of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, I stopped tracking. In fact, I was not even allowed to go into the Rio Centro conference centre this morning as, yesterday, I turned in my accreditation badge. I stepped out of the proceedings, and abandoned my negotiators. 

I was not alone. 130 participants of the conference – young, old, women, men, and children alike – occupied a central space for 3 hours and held a People’s Assembly. We used the human mic technique, popularised by the Occupy movement, to amplify our voices. Voices that were frustrated and dissatisfied with the final text, voices that ultimately rejected our world leaders and the processes by which they have failed us, again.

And they have failed us. The text of the final document has not changed since Tuesday morning. Heads of states and other leaders have flown into Rio from all over the world, at great carbon cost, and for what? For photo opportunities? To give a 3 minute speech on a podium? They have not negotiated on our behalf, and we are left with a document that adds little to the original Rio Declaration of 1992. When you consider the current context – the fact that we now know so much more about the effects of climate change, and the fact that the gap between rich and poor is becoming ever wider – it is not hard to see that the global sustainable development agenda has taken a step backwards at this summit. It has taken our governments 20 years, to agree that they agree to what they agreed 20 years ago. And they plan for it to take another 20 years to implement any action. Take what the Brazilian Environment Minister, Izabella Teixera, said this morning:

 ”We are looking towards Rio+40 or Rio+60. The number of years doesn’t matter: the important thing is the ‘plus’.”

The number of years doesn’t matter. Is that what they think? Or, is that what they hope, because they know that they won’t be the ones at the negotiating table (or even, alive) when 2032, or 2052, rolls around. As young people, we know better. We know that the science demands that we deal with our unsustainable patterns of production and consumption within the next 3 years. Otherwise, we are looking at a temperature rise of 6C before the end of the century. We know that the number of years does matter.

There is no excuse. We have the knowledge and the tools at our disposal to make the transition to a just, green economy. All we are lacking is the political will. Yesterday, I came to the conclusion that the solutions to our problems do not lie within UN walls, where posturing is more respected than commitment, where words speak louder than actions.

During the People’s Assembly, we collectively came to an agreement that the future we want, is not found here. At 4pm, we walked out together, in solidarity with all those in civil society whose voices had not been heard during the negotiations. We collected our badges, and turned them in, not intending to come back.

Let me be clear. We did not walk out because we did not want to be a part of the process. All of us had worked to get there, to be heard by the people in power. But they were not there. They were not negotiating, and they were not listening. Nor did we did walk out to send a message of hopelessness. How can I be hopeless, when I have witnessed so many people fighting for themselves, their people, and for future generations? Rather, we recognised that we had to look outside of this conference for the solutions – to the People’s Summit, which is being held on Flamengo beach, and where thousands of citizens from around the world, many from indigenous communities, have gathered to share their knowledge.

This has been my third UN conference. I was always worried about losing my badge before, because it is so tempting to think that at the next conference, or the one after that, things will be solved. But today, I question the power of the UN to solve our problems. I question the power of our governments, and of nation states. We are experiencing an unprecendented crisis of global governance. From the eurozone, to the corruption of wall street, to Egypt and Syria, and back here to Rio+20, we must ask ourselves how adept, and how able, our leaders are at acting in our best interests. When corporations hold the same rights as people, when Nick Clegg visits a football museum rather than negotiating a text on sustainable development (true story), I can no longer sit by and observe this process and hope to be heard.

I left this process, not because I am hopeless, but because I have work to do. And our leaders, our governments, are getting in the way.

I have been a naughty tracker. For today, on the last day of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, I stopped tracking. In fact, I was not even allowed to go into the Rio Centro conference centre this morning as, yesterday, I turned in my accreditation badge. I stepped out of the proceedings, and abandoned my negotiators.

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The first step we take on Monday in transitioning to a green economy, is to realise that we actually have to do some work to get there. Work to make our buildings more energy efficient, to better our transport systems, to make the shift to renewable energy, and to green existing jobs and sectors to make them more sustainable. This need is two-fold – to tackle climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation; and to provide green and decent work to the many millions of unemployed and underemployed people around the world. But, looking at the Future We Want text here at the Rio+20 Summit, you’d never know that. There is no sense of urgency, there is no ambition, and there is no respect for those people who are eager to do the work to shift to a green economy, but are still not being provided with the opportunity to do so.

We came into the negotiations thinking that countries might agree to implement national strategies for green job creation, especially for young people. But all we have is ‘encouragement’ of the private sector to contribute to job creation, and ‘encouragement’ to share experiences and best practices on ways to address the high levels of youth unemployment. ‘Encouraging’ is not committing. ‘Encouraging’ is not, well, that encouraging.

We need national policies. We need strategies to create green jobs to match up the people that need the work, with the work that needs to be done. But the one reference to the greening of existing jobs has been deleted, and the term ‘green jobs’ is now mentioned only once in the text. The issue is one of definition, and this is a challenge at the local, as well as international level. People are suspicious of new language and new concepts. There are many definitions out there, but to me, a green job is one that provides a living wage, opportunities for further training and progression, a safe and healthy work environment, and has environmental stewardship at the core of it.

And yet, countries here can still only agree that they ‘view the implementation of green economy policies by countries that seek to apply them for the transition towards sustainable development as a common undertaking.’ Which basically translates as, ‘we will give anyone that attempts anything a pat on the back’. This approach is a clear signal that answers are not only to be found here in the UN. If we want to create a skilled and knowledgeable green workforce, we will have to continue to push our governments once we return home.

That is what I plan to do with the East London Green Jobs Alliance. We are creating practical demonstration projects, aiming to take young people from unemployment, through training and into green and decent work. We are lobbying the Greater London Authority to make green economy a priority over the next 4 years, starting on Monday. And I hope you’ll do the same.

A version of this article first appeared in Outreach

The first step we take on Monday in transitioning to a green economy, is to realise that we actually…

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Today was the first official day of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, where Heads of State and ‘world leaders’ arrived in their droves to… well, what? It’s actually not at all clear what they are here to do, since the Brazilians have officially closed the text, and it seems that negotiations are over. The expectation at the moment is that the text will not change much, if at all, over the next 3 days.

This is, quite frankly, a disaster. The text is incredibly weak and watered down from the zero draft that we came in with last week. Apart from missing references to fundamental issues such as a high commissioner for future generations, green job creation, reproductive rights, and much more, it is peppered with passive language. Phrases like ‘We acknowledge’, ‘we encourage’, ‘we recognize..’. appear time and time again in the text, unlike the original 1992 Rio Declaration, which speaks in terms of ‘we must, we will, we shall.’ It may not seem like a big difference, but it means a hell of a lot in terms of the legal implications of the commitments. The text is so weak, that the Major Group for NGOs outright rejected it in this morning’s plenary, declaring:

We stand on the brink of Rio+20 being another failed attempt. With governments only trying to protect their narrow interests instead of trying to inspire the world. If that happens, it will be a big failure.

…You cannot have a document called the Future We Want without any mention of planetary boundaries, tipping points or planetary carrying capacity.

…The text as it stands is completely out of touch with reality. Just to be clear, NGOs at Rio do not endorse this document.

So, imagine my upset when I went to the UK briefing for NGOs last night, and our Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, declared the text a success. For 45 minutes she talked without drawing breath. She said that ‘no one has got everything they wanted’ but that  it was a success and that this text represented a big step forward. THEN she asked us to applaud the work of her ministers.

Certainly, the ministers here have a hard job with long hours and that deserves to be acknowledged. But applause should be saved for when the job is done. Applause should be saved for when we actually have a text that demonstrates the ambition that we are calling for. I was so frustrated by her relentless positive spinning last night, that I left the briefing and cried.

Disillusion turned to anger today, when I went along to the reception for UK participants, and had an argument with Nick Clegg! Or, let’s call it a reasoned debate. I managed to corner him after he gave his opening speech, in which his main points were:

  • He knew we were disappointed, but this week was never going to be like 1992
  • It is hard to get 192 countries to agree on anything, so the current text is an achievement
  • He emphasised that countries had agreed to move forward with Sustainable Development Goals
  • We need to be careful not to communicate the text as a glass half empty, when it is a glass half full
In summary, our exchange went as follows:

I told him that the young people here would not consider it a glass half full, or a glass half empty, but a glass that had shattered on the floor. Because the current text had stripped away many of the basic rights and principles of the 1992 Rio Declaration. That you can not consider such a move a success, when the current environmental and economic situation is so much worse than it was then. That this text was a massive step backwards, since it had stripped away mention of reproductive rights, a high commissioner for future generations, and only had one mention of green jobs.

He responded that they never said that they thought it was a success (even though Caroline Spelman said it at least 10 times last night – messaging fail); that it was G77 who had blocked green jobs (which is true); that if he had got to write the text it would be completely different; that G77 have a fundamental suspicion of the UN process and that it wasn’t up to him or the EU to bring a stronger text in that G77 wouldn’t sign up to out of principle. That the text, although less ambitious, had more integrity for everyone signing up to it, and that they were being more considerate of what G77 wanted.

I replied that I didn’t believe that everyone signing up to the text meant it held integrity, when the text was inherently meaningless. And I said that G77 were blocking mostly because of financing and implementation issues.

Which he VEHEMENTLY denied. (And at this point, his bodyguard started tugging on my bags and clothes to pull me backwards) He said that G77 blocking things had ‘nothing to do with financing’.

Which is just. not. true. It is all about money. And money, is about burden-sharing. To say that the EU, US and other developed countries have been making concessions to G77 is ridiculous. They may have given away small wins to G77, but they have not moved on the key issue of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). This is the principle that recognises that some countries are richer, and might have got us into this mess in the first place, and some countries still have an urgent need to develop and lift millions out of poverty, and so have differing levels of responsibility when it comes to paying for solutions. CBDR is only mentioned in 2 places in the current text, as opposed to 10 places in the Rio+10 text drafted in Johannesberg.

This is not a step forward. This is not success. This is not progress.

And two last things – Nick, if you want to write the text, GO AHEAD. I was under the impression that negotiating the text was THE reason you were invited here. Also, you are a public servant, not Angelina Jolie. Next time, tell your bodyguard to be less manhandly and let the people talk to you. Actually, come to think of it, Angelina Jolie is a goodwill ambassador, right? Get her in here, stat. She might do a better job.

Disillusion turned to anger today, when I went along to the reception for UK participants, and had an argument with Nick Clegg! Or, let’s call it a reasoned debate.

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This week, leaders from around the world are gathering at the Rio+20 UN Earth Summit to reaffirm principles of sustainable development and to negotiate strategies and solutions to tackle the many challenges that face us – challenges such as rights and access to water, food and land; our ever-warming climate; the lack of green and decent jobs; biodiversity and fisheries. There are so many themes being discussed here, and it is clear as day to me that the only way we will achieve any of it, is to build in women’s rights and participation from the beginning. Because women are at the frontline of all of these challenges, being disproportionately affected by climate change, making up the bulk of the agricultural workforce and being most in need of the education and skills to help them into green and decent work.

However, here in Rio, I heard from a negotiator from the G77 (developing country) bloc, that the best opportunity for African women to enter the green economy was to make earrings out of coconut shells. No jokes. Now, I’m all for women starting their own enterprises and developing the skills and confidence to support themselves. I also like the sound of coconut shell earrings as much as the next girl. But I have two points in response to this negotiator:

  • Any encouragement for women to start their own small scale micro enterprises must be backed up by calls for a social protection floor. Women who own their own businesses must have support to see them through when they or their children fall sick, or are injured, or when their business goes through a fallow period. Otherwise, we are asking women to take on massive risk and instability for themselves and their families.
  • And in any case, where is the ambition? We need to be thinking on a much larger scale. A recent ILO /UNEP report outlines how just 2% investment of GDP could create up to 60 million green jobs over the next two decades, in sectors such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, transport, recycling, fisheries and reforestation. This is where we should be looking. After all, there is only so much demand for coconut earrings.

The problem, of course, is that to create opportunities for women in this area, global governments would have to tackle a whole boatload of other issues – women´s access to education, childcare and right to self-determination over their sexual and reproductive health. We would have to make connections between what is good for women, the economy and the planet. World leaders aren’t there yet.

During negotiations here in Rio, the Holy See (who have UN observer status and who represent all of 800 old white men in the Vatican) have moved to delete any mention to women’s rights to reproductive, sexual or maternal healthcare from the text. The Vatican displaying misogynistic tendencies is not surprising, but they were also supported in this effort by the G77 developing country bloc, who represent 132 countries and who stated in the plenary hall that they didn’t recognise the term “gender equality”.

Thankfully, these terms have since made it back into the text, but it signals that the new green economy might be just as unequal, exclusive and unjust as the one we have now. We must fight to make the connections between basic women’s rights and the environment. We must ask how we will leverage women’s vital sustainability contributions and climate solutions at speed and scale at the local and global level. We must bring environmentalists and economists into the struggle for women’s right to education, childcare and healthcare.

The complexities of the environmental, economic and climate crises require systemic change in how we are living with each other and our Earth. This change will only be achieved through full representation of women in decision-making processes, and deploying necessary resources for women to aid in implementing economic and environmental solutions.

Anything less just won’t cut it. Not even coconut earrings.

A version of this post first appeared on The F Word

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There are so many themes being discussed here, and it is clear as day to me that the only way we will achieve any of it, is to build in women’s rights and participation from the beginning.

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Last night, I had a dream. Don’t worry, this isn’t me trying to do, like, a Martin Luther King thing. This was a literal dream. I was in a house and water started coming through the roof. I had some cups and glasses to catch the drips, but I couldn’t keep up with the overflow. When I went to throw some of the water out of the window, I saw that the entire house was moving, fast, down the side of a hill, like an avalanche. But I just kept bailing out the water.

You must excuse my mind and its dealing in very literal metaphors. What can I say? It’s my subconscious. But that is what it feels like to be here. That we’re running around, catching the drips, tweeting, signing petitions, deleting, then adding things to the text. But the bigger picture – the fact that our house is crashing down a mountain, that our global values system has gone terribly awry – is getting lost as we deal in details.

But, you want the details you say? Oh, okay then. Here is a fantastic update on the current state of play, as received from Alex Farrow of the UK Youth Climate Coalition:

State of the negotiations

  • The text is now closed. It was presented by Brazil this morning (after a 13 hour delayed plenary) and accepted by all countries. Every country commented it was ‘the best we could do’ but no one was happy with the text (apart from Canada).
  • The text has “only” been approved “ad ref” in plenary this morning. This means that it has been provisionally agreed to without any remaining brackets. Although difficult, it is still possible to reopen an agreed ad ref paragraph or text. Also, the text will only become the official outcome of this summit after it has been agreed to by heads of state and/or governments during the high-level days. If one or more countries insist on blocking the text, it will not be approved.
  • High Level negotiations begin tomorrow with the official opening of the UNCSD at 2pm UK time. There will be 200 x 3 minute speeches and then they get to work.

Key issues with the text

  • Last Friday’s text was what was agreed at the end of the official UN prep comm and the one released today was the Brazilian edits.
  • What we get so far:
    • Commitment to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
    • ‘Enhanced’ power of UNEP (but no upgrade to a United Nations Environment Organisation)
    • Formation of a High Level forum on Sustainable Development.
    • A nod to ‘future generations’ and commitment to a report being produced on a High Commissioner for Future Generations.
    • Reaffirming of UNFCCC frameworks and highlighting the gap between commitments and what is needed. A fairly good, non-controversial section on climate change, but nothing new.
    • Commitment to non-formal education on sustainable development.
  • What we don’t get so far:
    • SDGs will be inter-governmental and with little participation from civil society.
    • No firm commitment on green jobs or significant progress on a real, green economy.
    • No High Commissioner for Future Generations.
    • the High Level forum is very weak and not the robust body needed to hold countries to account on their actions after commitments and monitor implementation.
    • Gender and reproductive rights were not protected. These were opposed by G77 and the Holy See.

The text is very weak and that’s how it has got through. Lots of language such as ‘we commit to exploring’ or ‘we will consider proposals’ are in there meaning there is actually very little action in it. For this reason it remains weak, unambitious and not nearly as bold as the 1992 Earth Summit principles or Agenda 21.

UK position

  • The UK have got what they came for. They wanted SDGs, GDP+ (big push on this)
  • Need more mention on green job & greening existing jobs.
  • There were some previous issues with the UK blocking some of the water text, but this has now been resolved.
  • The UK aren’t really doing a huge amount now. They had very little involvement with the negotiations before hand and only sent one Defra official for a few days out of the 4 weeks of negotiations leading up to this week.

Having said that, I’m off to another briefing with the UK delegation in a couple of hours, so I’ll keep you updated on that one.

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The bigger picture is getting lost as we deal in details.

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