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Roll-back at Rio+20?

Rich nations changing tunes

As the Rio summit on sustainable development nears, governments have yet to agree on most issues, and rich countries are backtracking on the original principles and commitments made 20 years ago. With only 10 days to go before the start of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, the countries are still far from agreeing on what to say in a summit declaration or plan of action. By Martin Khor


The final meeting to prepare for the conference last week at the UN headquarters in New York made some progress, but it was not enough.
Only 70 paragraphs of a total 329 in the latest draft declaration [951 KB] have been agreed on. There are differing views in the rest, which have to be bridged when the delegates meet again on June 13 in Rio.

* Amid multiple crises

The political leaders are meeting on June 20-23 for what is dubbed as the Rio+20 summit, so called because it is marking the 20th anniversary of the historic Earth Summit of 1992, also held in Rio. More than a hundred heads of state or government are expected to attend Rio + 20, making it the most important international conference this year.

It will be held amid a global financial crisis, growing unemployment and worsening environmental problems, including increasing water scarcity and floods, biodiversity loss, food insecurity and climate change. These are all part of the crisis in sustainable development and its three dimensions – economic, social and environment.

Unfortunately, the summit comes at a time when developed and developing countries seem less and less able to reach a common understanding on key issues and principles. Big differences have emerged on the three new issues being addressed by the conference – the concept of the green economy, how to define sustainable development goals, and what new institutional framework to create to house future activities on sustainable development.

* North-South divide over fundamentals

But what is even more worrying is that the developed countries are attempting to remove or dilute the principles agreed to in Rio 20 years ago, and to backtrack on the commitments they had made to assist developing countries through finance and technology transfer in order to implement sustainable development.

Thus the North-South divide is not only over specific issues but is also at the deep level of the fundamentals that lie at the foundations of international cooperation of the past many decades. These include the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), and the commitments on technology transfer and finance.

The CBDR was one of the Rio Principles adopted in 1992. It was agreed that all countries have a common responsibility to protect the environment, but also differentiated responsibilities because the rich countries should play the leading role, due to their greater contribution to the environmental crisis and their higher economic status.

This basic principle is under attack. In the recent negotiations, the United States has made it clear it cannot accept CBDR. Wherever the term is mentioned, it wants it deleted. Almost all developed countries use the excuse that no single Rio principle should be singled out and a general reference to the set of Rio principles should suffice. This is causing great concern to the developing countries, grouped in the G77 and to China. For them, the clear reaffirmation of the CBDR principle in particular, and the Rio principles in general, is the most important point that Rio + 20 must proclaim. Otherwise it would be a great retreat from the original Rio.

* Back tracking on technology transfer

The second serious problem is the developed countries’ back tracking on their commitment to transfer technology to developing countries. In the section on technology transfer in the draft declaration, the US, European Union, Canada and Australia do not even want any reference to technology transfer in the title itself.

The original title in the text by the co-chairs of the meeting is “Technology development and transfer”. The US, supported by Canada and Australia, want to delete the word “transfer” and instead change the title to “Technology development, innovation and science”.

The EU also wants a new title: “Research, Innovation and Technology Development.” This is the clearest indication of an intention to kill the concept, let alone the commitment to technology transfer.

However, there are still some negotiating days ahead, and there is a slim chance that there may be a change of heart at Rio itself.

Recommended citation: Khor, Martin (2012) ‘Roll-back at Rio+20? Rich countries changing tunes’, World Economy & Development In Brief (WDEV), Luxembourg, 6 May (www.wdev.eu)

Posted: 6 May 2012

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