Rio+20 Countdown: Big Stumbling Blocks or Lots of Small Ones?

This is Part 19 of a series of blog posts leading up to the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 20-22.  The full series is available here.

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It has been generally observed that negotiatons at the Preparatory meetings for Rio+20 are in the “Eleventh hour” (as the chair said yesterday).  We know that significant parts of the text of any agreement remain [bracketed] (negotiation-speak for not having agreement on specific wording).  In addition, WWF and Greenpeace slammed negotiators yesterday for using weak, vague words where they are manufacturing agreement by not saying anything.  So, right now the agreement is in the middle of a hard revision and the outcome could go either way.

But do we know why?  Are negotiators stumbling over large issues (like climate change, oceans, forests that have been thorns in the side of state negotiators for decades now) or is it instead a struggle over smaller issues (the basics of technology transfer, financial issues, etc)?  If it is the former, then we may need to send those issues into other negotiating forums.  If it is the later, the problems may run deeper and be a sign of clear splits about basic issues and priorities between the North and South, Europe and the U.S., etc.

Delegates at meeting without seats (Photo by Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

Based on the Third Prepcom for Rio+20 up through June 16, 2012(link to coverage by ENB).   Negotiators have been having significant meetings about a range of different issues.  And it is possible to get some basic understanding of whether it is Big Stumbling Blocks or whether it is walking through deep sand that is causing the process to go slow.  One comment before I start the analysis is that since a day is dedicated to Oceans, it may take on more priority and wrangling that it otherwise would, so take that into account.

Looking at the Third Prepcom meetings in Rio over the past few days it appears that there are not the large stumbling blocks that we might expect; rather negotiators appear to be wrangling over small issues.  Oceans, for example, have seen some significant agreement on key issues, but states are opposed to wording that stipulates they should work on a Law of the Sea treaty about the environment.  Now, of course the agreement is primarily vague and noncommittal, but still states appear to take serious the issue of Oceans, but not the specifics of how to deal with it.  Similar issues recur on climate and forests, and to a lesser extent biodiversity.  Climate has taken a backseat in many of the discussions, and this may be strategic by putting the largest stumbling block in international environmental politics in a minor position.  In general, it would not be correct to contend that there is disagreement about the topics for discussion or about the general provisions in those sections; however, when it comes to the specific wording, negotiators are struggling mightily.  This may not be the case and the fights may simply be ways of weakening the overall focus of that section; however, it appears that broad general agreement is the order of the day, but that agents are fighting over specific points.  There are not a few stumbling blocks but instead a morass of sand surrounding the text.  The problem with this is that no section appears fully coherent at this point, instead every single section retains some [brackets] making progress slow and ensuring that each day they have to work on each issue.

This is preliminary and it may appear very different after looking at what happens today and tomorrow.  But for now, the delay appears to be a result of negotiators struggling with the specifics of every agreement and not their opposition to the themes or issues discussed.  Now, the high negative is that this has made negotiations painfully slow.  One paragraph I’ve been following closely has seen ten words be changed in the past month.  But, the good news is that strong breakthroughs are possible in this situation.  If it were a big stumbling block then there are side-payments and other things that can lead to breakthroughs, but they will be few and far between.  But in this situation, there will still be large portions that essentially default to the weakest possible position because of continued brackets; but other sections may become strongly worded.

Whether sections will be upgraded in the next few days is largely up to the leadership.  Unfortunately, the draft circulated by Brazil last night has caused significant consternation from analysts and activists.  Responding to Climate Change wrote this morning that:

0825  There’s dismay, anger and frustration in Rio this morning following the release last night of the Brazilian Government’s compromise text for the Rio+20 negotiations. The NGO response suggests largely that they feel the process has been compromised instead.

This does not doom any agreement, but it does not bode well.

Make sure to check out:

Earth Negotiations Bulletin Third PrepCom Coverage

Responding to Climate Change’s Live Coverage of Rio+20

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