Saturday 25 June 2011

Epiphany along the Road to Rio+20

It’s been a busy week – for me, and for fellow-travellers along the Road to Rio. First, there’s been the UN’s Vienna Energy Forum – at which we heard Mr Ban propose the 3 x Es and 30-40-30-30 targets. If you are sad enough to want to know what these mean, watch him at: - but, for most of you, I hope you will treat these hoped-for fantasies with the skepticism they deserve: like the 20-20 compact before them, they are likely to die slow, unlamented deaths.
More promising has been the European Commission’s Communication on Rio+20 and my meeting in Brussels with one of the people who wrote it. It’s definitely worth a read (see: It’s purpose is to frame the debate and suggest a shape to the outcomes – not to specify the content of those outcomes as Ban Ki Moon tried to do in Vienna. That’s the job of UN member states and, of course, civil society represented by the major groups. Let’s look at the FOUR outcomes the EU is proposing:
1. A ‘Rallying Call’ – we should think about what might work: what would you write on your banner if you were demonstrating for results at Rio+20? “Green Economy Now!” “Green Jobs Now!” “Just transition now to the Green Economy!” – or what? We need to think about this – and come up with some suggestions.
2. A Roadmap – with milestones and targets; what do we need to get done by when? For example: “Remove all subsidies to fossil fuel industries by the end of 2012!” “50% of our energy from renewable resources by 2020.” “End subsidies to industrial fisheries by 2015.” These are the SMART targets that we need to see in the Political Statement coming out of Rio+20 – and we need to define them, ourselves – as youth! – so that we can give governments, and the Commission, something to chew on.
3. A Toolbox of Policy Approaches - this relates directly to the Roadmap above: if you want to achieve Target ‘X’ – you have to introduce Policy ‘Y.’ Many of the policy approaches discussed in the European Communication are about Green Taxes, removal of subsidies, pricing and regulatory mechanisms – and in this Toolbox, they need to be spelled out and articulated persuasively.
4. A Monitoring and Evaluation regime: by what measures should we judge if we are being successful? Every government seems to accept that we have not been very successful in measuring the speed with which we are transitioning to Sustainable lifestyles. So – in this final component of the outcome document, we need to spell out how we are going to measure progress towards sustainability – or the lack of it.
So where was the Epiphany? It came about when I mentioned that I had been talking with the X-Prize organization in the USA. (These are the people that set up multi-million dollar prizes for making the first solar flight across the USA or the first private voyage to the moon – the point being that a $10m prize leverages many tens of millions in research from other companies to win the prize.) I have been talking to them about creating a prize for the LDC country that comes up with the best National Plan for transitioning to a Green Economy.
And then it hit me: what we should be seeking from Rio+20 is not some grand international plan or ‘agreement’ that’s never going to happen. Instead, we should get governments competing with each other to produce the most effective National Plan for the transition to a Green Economy. For Peak Oil and the imminent end of the Fossil Fuel era requires every government to plan for that Transition: so – rather than encouraging them to avoid biting that bullet by encouraging carbon capture and storage schemes or Emissions Trading Schemes – we should encourage every government to plan an orderly, rapid transition away from a fossil fuel drive economy to one based on renewable energy. For the faster we can make that transition, the less we have to worry about catastrophic climate change.
Epiphany = National Plans – not International Agreements! That’s what we got so wrong about Copenhagen – raising expectations for an international agreement when none was ever likely, or even possible! For the UN does not levy green taxes, or give subsidies, or set regulations: that is the work of National Governments. So our focus has to be on National Plans. There are things that the international community can – and must – do: like policing the global commons – the oceans and seas, outer space – in the same way as it polices air traffic through IATA. And it can organize itself better – by clustering the secretariats for the 500+ Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) into one – or a smaller number of - centre(s). But the main thing we should look for from Government representatives coming to the Rio+20 Summit is ever-more ambitious National Plans.
What should those plans contain? In broad terms, there should be FIVE parts to it:
ONE: Plan for a zero-carbon Energy Infrastructure: each country must do the math – and figure out how they are going to keep their lights on, and the wheels of industry and commerce turning without a drop of fossil fuel;
TWO: Plan for a Tax / Subsidy regime that encourages sustainable consumption and production and punishes unsustainable consumption and production.
THREE: National Education / Training Curriculum that places at its heart learning about the challenge of sustaining a global family of +/- 10 billion people to live in comfort and security within the means of a small, fragile planet.
FOUR: A Poverty Eradication Plan that spells out how the profits of a Green Economy will be used to raise the poorest sectors of society into relative prosperity and comfort with more choices and opportunities for all;
FIVE: A Just Transition: a plan for minimizing the social upheaval of closing down unsustainable industries and activities and opening up sustainable industries and activities so that the workers and families are not left destitute. This will involve massive training and information schemes..
The list could go on and on: we would like to see Youth at the heart of all national plans – with support for youth-led SME start-ups and a focus on green jobs for youth. And there should be provision of social care – for the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and the unemployed. And, as we have argued since the original Rio Earth Summit – a sustainable society should be a peaceful, de-militarised society with shared armed forces, open borders and community policing. But those are additions that National Planners can make or not as they wish: all plans should address the key points outlined above – which could be 5 or 10 – or however many we think we can agree upon.
This makes the task in the World Youth Congress(WYC) in Rio in April 2012 more obviously strategic and hugely important. For it should be seen as a dry run for the Government Summit in June – and now it is entirely in the hands of young people. I suggest that WYC delegates engage with their governments BEFORE they come to the Congress – so that they can hear their plans and build on them. They must then discuss with their organizations and peers and add their own suggestions for their country’s National Action Plan – also before they come. At the Congress, we shall have sessions where delegates can compare Plans, adding the best components of each so that they can return with improved National Action Plans to present to their governments.
Bottom Line: the young delegates must come up with, and agree, a series of their own brilliant National Action Plans for a rapid transition to a Green Economy that are far better, and more aspirational, than those of their governments. They must be plans that will make the governments and the media sit up and take notice – and require them raise their game before arriving in Rio six weeks later. WYC delegates, and youth all over the world, must use those six weeks to lobby for improvements to the National Plans.
So – please, please, please: let us learn the lessons of our failures in Copenhagen, Johannesburg and even at the original Rio Summit: some of you will remember those International NGO treaties we spent so much time and effort creating in 1992: they were brilliant but who remembers a word of them now? All that lobbying and flag-waving we did in Copenhagen: it didn’t make a blind bit of difference, did it? If we can come up with a National Green Economy Transition Plan for each of our countries – that is something that we can all work on without raising our carbon foot-print and travelling twice to Rio. And Rio+20 can then become a race to the top for the best and most effective plan – not a race to the bottom to secure the minimum possible shared international agreement.

David R. Woollcombe, June 25th 2011

1 comment:

  1. If we agree to “think globally”, it becomes evident that riveting attention on GROWTH could be a grave mistake because we are denying how economic and population growth in the communities in which we live cannot continue as it has until now. Each village's resources are being dissipated, each town's environment degraded and every city's fitness as place for our children to inhabit is being threatened. To proclaim something like, 'the meat of any community plan for the future is, of course, growth' fails to acknowledge that many villages, towns and cities are already ‘built out’, and also ‘filled in’ with people. If the quality of life we enjoy now is to be maintained for the children, then limits on economic and population growth will have to be set. By so doing, we choose to “act locally" and sustainably.

    More economic and population growth are no longer sustainable in many too many places on the surface of Earth because biological constraints and physical limitations are immutably imposed upon ever increasing human consumption, production and population activities of people in many communities where most of us reside. Inasmuch as the Earth is finite with frangible environs, there comes a point at which GROWTH is unsustainable. There is much work to done locally. But that effort cannot reasonably begin without sensibly limiting economic and population growth.

    To quote another source, “We face a wide-open opportunity to break with the old ways of doing the town’s business…..” That is a true statement. But the necessary “break with the old ways” of continous economic and population growth is not what is occurring. There is a call for a break with the old ways, but the required changes in behavior are not what is being proposed as we plan for the future. What is being proposed and continues to occur is more of the same, old business-as-usual overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, the very activities that appear to be growing unsustainbly. More business-as-usual could soon become patently unsustainable, both locally and globally. A finite planet with the size, composition and environs of the Earth and a community with the boundaries, limited resources and wondrous climate of villages, towns and cities where we live may not be able to sustain much longer the economic and population growth that is occurring on our watch. Perhaps necessary changes away from UNSUSTAINABLE GROWTH and toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises are in the offing.

    Think globally while there is still time and act locally before it is too late for human action to make any difference in the clear and presently dangerous course of unfolding human-induced ecological events, both in our planetary home and in our villages, towns and cities.