Rio+20 Countdown: Has Civil Society Ever Met an Environmental Agreement they Liked?

This is Part 24 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.


Today a finalized draft was presented and officially closed before high level meetings begin June 20, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro.  Changes will be made over the next few days, but are expected to be minor and largely cosmetic, so unless there is a significant breakthrough this is the likely Rio+20 Outcome.   And environmental activists are not pleased with the final draft at all.

Greenpeace was extremely vocal with its opposition to the text filled with weak language and requirements.  Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace, said: “The approach that has been taken is to go for the lowest common denominator. The trick here is to look very carefully at the UN-ese language being used. If they use the word voluntary, it means it is not going to happen.” In a later interview with The Guardian, Naidoo further reiterated his point with a call for increased civil disobedience by environmental activists.  Jim Leape of WWF released the following statement quickly after the text was released:

In addition, Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke released the following statement: “On a planet that’s now home to 7 billion people, facing ever-increasing threats to our environment and to our future, this document simply does not get us to where we need to go…What we can’t accomplish with documents, hopefully we can accomplish with real commitments to action like these.”  Civil Society and these NGOs simply put do not like the draft text.

Does that mean that the text is bad?

Discussing this issue, someone responded to me that this is civil society’s job, to push the governments of the world to do better.  There are a few things to draw from this point: 1. Civil society upset at outcomes is the necessary check to government negotiations, and 2. If NGOs don’t like a document, it doesn’t mean much about the text itself, they always complain.  I want to question each of these points and see if we can’t figure out whether the criticism is simply civil society playing its necessary role or whether it is actually a bad document.

I looked back at some reports of earlier agreements just to see how civil society responded to those.   A BBC Report, December 12, 1997, right after negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol happened, found that: ”

“‘The treaty will fail to properly reduce the threat of climate change because key players – in particular the US and Japan – have refused to set realistic targets for emission reductions,'” said a statement by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).  The environmental group Greenpeace labelled the result of the Kyoto climate summit ‘a tragedy and a farce’ in a press release, claiming it is “inadequate” to protect against global warming.”

But these are pretty good criticisms of the Kyoto protocol itself;’ although it could have grown into a robust climate governance system, the protocol itself was quite problematic with emission targets set through agreement rather than based on any attempt to address the problem.   Let’s take what is now considered to be a generally effective treaty, the Montreal Protocol on Ozone.  A London Times article from June 18, 1990 wrote highlights Greenpeace’s criticism:

“The ozone hole over the Antarctic is likely to grow larger, with another emerging over the Arctic, if signatory nations to the Montreal Protocol, an agreement to limit ozone destruction, approve the treaty in London next week.  Greenpeace claim that instead of curbing the use of ozone destructive chemicals, which include refrigerant and foam substances chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the 1990 draft will allow nations to increase use of ozone-destructive chemicals by 50 per cent from 16 million to 24 million tonnes by the year 2000, the date when at which they will be phased out.”

But notice the difference here, and they are key.  Greenpeace makes clear criticisms.  When an agreement is made with least common denominator thinking, civil society decries it as a “farce”.  When an agreement instead has formal requirements, then civil society responds that it is too slow and has too many exceptions.

Civil society may not have ever met an agreement they like…

But, the way they dislike agreements matter significantly.

They do perform a necessary check in pushing everyone to get better, do better, improve our environment.  But, it does not follow that we should just accept that situation and assume that civil society criticisms are a standard result following international environmental conferences.  The way that civil society pushes for better in international environmental documents is highly relevant.

So, back to the Rio+20 Document.  Kumi Naidoo described the outcome earlier as the “longest suicide note in history.”  We knew he was going to criticize it, that’s his job and he does it well, but to describe it in such is a clear sign: this agreement is a least common denominator solution and not a good solution that just doesn’t go far enough.


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