Photo by Eoghan OLionnain / European Commission Brussels

EC Rio+20 strategy doesn’t convince

Evert-jan Quak | 27 July 2011

Some weeks ago the European Commission published its initial views on the strategy towards the Rio+20 Summit. The communication has to fuel dialogues ahead of a final EU Rio+20 Strategy later this year. Although the communication, titled 'Rio+20: towards the green economy and better governance', was published a month ago, I decided to write about it in this blog post because there have been few reflections circulated on the internet on this communication.

The communication outlines objectives and specific actions on the two inter-linked themes of the UN-Conference: enabling the transition to a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and ensuring better governance for sustainable development. Overall it gives a good overview of the most important tasks ahead of the summit and addresses some pressing issues with concrete ideas.

The communication maps out the 'what, how and who' of a transition to a green economy, proposing specific actions that could be implemented at the international, national and regional levels. The key themes are:

  1. Investing in key resources and natural capital ('what'): these are: water, renewable energy, marine resources, biodiversity and ecosystem services, sustainable agriculture, forests, waste and recycling.
  2. Combining market and regulatory instruments ('how'): eco-taxes, removing environmentally harmful subsidies, mobilising public and private financial resources and investing in skills and green jobs. Indicators that reflect a wider sense of progress (both environmental and social), and that can work alongside GDP, need to be developed.
  3. Improving governance and encouraging private sector involvement ('who'): reinforcing and streamlining the existing international governance structures (for example by upgrading the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)). The much greater involvement and engagement of businesses and civil society is also essential.

Although the communication is a good starting point for further discussions, the green economy is especially well developed with concrete ideas for the environmental and pollution topics but fewer for social topics. The international frameworks for sustainable development and governance in general have also not been well developed.

The communication uses mostly existing initiatives as the basis for further development and improvement. Therefore it isn’t very innovative and lacks originality. The 'how' question is possibly the most interesting part to read. The European Commission opts to develop domestic and regional carbon emission trading schemes, to phase out environmentally harmful subsidies accompanied by targets and deadlines, set up new public-private financing schemes, and to establish green skills training programmes.

The communication ends with some deliverables proposed for preparation in advance of the Rio+20 summit in June 2012:

  1. A broad political 'rallying call' with shared, ambitious vision and goals.
  2. A set of specific actions at international, regional and national level – mapped out as a 'Green Economy Roadmap'.
  3. A 'toolbox' of policy approaches and best practice examples to be used to reach agreed objectives.
  4. A mechanism to promote and monitor overall progress.

One issue that hasn't been mentioned but has to be tackled in the discussion is how to ensure policy coherence. Also, the green economy looks very bright in the eyes of the Commission, like the Holy Grail for a sustainable, fair and equitable future that will guarantee economic growth. The question however is, aren't the economic prospects of the green economy overestimated? A number of people, especially the poor, could become  worse off, especially during the long and bumpy road of the transition period towards a fully established green economy. There is no reference or discussion at all about the less glittering side of green economy and how to solve the problems and even compensate the people who will suffer.

This in particularly is important to tackle ahead of the summit because there is already enough friction between the developed, emerging and developing countries. A successful strategy for Rio+20 must convincingly bridge the differences between countries in different stages of development. Unfortunately, I do not think this communication will convince the developing countries.  

Photo credit main picture: Photo by Eoghan OLionnain / European Commission Brussels