Leaked Rio+20 Document Has Lots For Treehuggers To Like, With One Glaring Shortcoming

Iain Farrell/CC BY-ND 2.0

I've had a bit more time to go through the draft of the Rio+20 document, leaked to The Guardian and which I wrote a bit about yesterday.

My overall impression remains that while it certainly hits all the right points in terms of what the issues are, and mostly hits them all in terms of solutions (more on that below), the central failing will be that all of it is based upon voluntary national actions. I just don't see how voluntary actions alone will actual ensure the long term sustainability of ecologically sustainable development. Many individuals have a hard enough time with voluntary, willpower-based goals, let alone nations.

Voluntary, Aspirational Goals Won't Work
WWF has released some comments on the proposed Sustainable Development Goals, which a volre worth giving a read, and come to a similar conclusion:

The proposals for change are based on "voluntary national commitments", which are not legally binding and will not commit countries to meet any targets or to work within a given timeframe. Countries need to agree [to] targets, timelines and funding that match the challenges they are tackling.

And adds:

Many of the proposals are vague and open-ended. For example there are no targets for stopping deforestation or goals for effective water management.

Which is certainly true. Much of the document is very broadly worded, however well intentioned. This is no doubt because the more specific it all is the less likely it will be to get nations to sign on to even voluntary efforts and targets—and when it comes to international environmental conferences the UN needs something it can claim as victory. That's of course leaving aside the outcome of COP17, hailed as progress, but is clearly not from the perspective of actually preserving the climate.

On to some specifics that caught my eye and I think will be of particular interest to TreeHugger readers (truth be told, much of the document is pretty dry reading in style if not content):

Paragraph 64, On Food Security
Emphasis here is mine.

We reaffirm the right to food and call upon all States to prioritize sustainable intensification of food production through increased investment in local food production, improved access to local and global agri-food markets, and reduced waste throughout the supply chain, will special attention to women, smallholders, youth, and indigenous farmers. We are committed to ensuring proper nutrition for our people.

For a number of years now the UN has been shining a light the need for an agricultural revolution much different than the so-called Green Revolution which India went though, which big name international philanthropists like Bill Gates would like to see implemented in Africa, and which though saved lives in the middle of the 20th century by improving crops yields did so largely at the expense of the environment, smallholder farmers and the water table. This just continues the call for a different approach to farming than the industrialized approach so often foisted off on developing nations.

The "sustainable intensification" phrase is particularly interesting in that, intentionally or not, it squarely stands behind the notion that local food production can contribute to this.

UN Special Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter in particular has backed a new, intensified but ecologically sensitive approach, in particular agroecological production:

To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects. Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling a crop yields over a period of 3-10 years.

Paragraph 70, On Energy
Here's one of the more concrete items, at least in terms of timetables. Again, emphasis is mine.

We propose to build on the Sustainable Energy for All initiative launched by the Secretary-General, with the goals of providing universal access to a basic minimum level of modern energy services for both consumption and production uses by 2030; improving energy efficiency at all levels with a view to doubling the rate of improvement by 2030; and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030 through promoting the development and use of renewable energy sources and technologies in all countries. We call for provision of adequate financial resources, of sufficient quality and delivered in a timely manner, to developing countries for providing efficient and wider use of energy sources.

The interesting phrase here to me is the one I highlighted. Indeed, determining what is a basic minimum level of energy use (modern or, what, antique?) is probably the central hard question of energy use and energy policy. It ought to, but doesn't often, figure into everyone's personal lives as well as national policy.

The fact of the matter is that operating from a base of assuming equitable access and use of energy that what is considered normal energy use in most wealthy nations is just way too high, regardless of energy source (at the moment at least, until we get that equity thing down a bit better).

Maybe we need energy dietary recommendations so we all can go on an energy diet, so that those billions of people starving for energy can use a bit more. Now, energy use isn't that simple, sure, but if the issue is expanding and making energy access more equitable while protecting the climate, it's all reasonable.

Paragraphs 84, On Combatting Overfishing

We urge countries to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing by adopting and implementing effective tools, in accordance with international law. We note the agreement on port state measures to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing approved by FAO in 2009 and urge States that have not yet acceded to the agreement to do so.

How about naval UN peacekeeping force to combat pirate fishing? Sure, determining the rules of engagement might be difficult, but when there's a billion dollar market in illegal fish, and there's billions in profits to be made off the extinction of high-priced and highly-prized species like bluefin tuna, perhaps the ante needs to be upped. Someone needs to actually step in an protect species from overexploitation. And groups like Sea Shepherd can only do so much.

Tags: Energy | Environmental Justice | Environmental Policy | Fishing | Global Climate Change | Rio+20 | United Nations

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