Lack of progress at the Rio+20 conference towards a sustainable future for humankind was redeemed in small part by agreement that new goals must be set towards that end, says Christian Aid.
With the lack of vision coming from the conference, the UK commitment to help lead international work on the new Sustainable Development Goals which will determine the direction of global development from 2015 was a positive development.
Conference announcements by UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that major UK companies will be required to report on their greenhouse gas emissions, and that Britain is to help more than six million smallholder farmers in developing countries counter climate change were also welcome moves.
But in other respects, the conference was ‘stunning only its lack of urgency’ said Dr Alison Doig, Christian Aid’s senior advisor on Sustainable Development.
‘The fires of environmental destruction and human suffering are raging across the world but in Rio the most powerful leaders showed no hurry to put them out.
‘Instead, they have pursued narrow self-interest, technical bargaining and energetic spin, in the hope of persuading the public that they have worked wonders,’ she said.
‘The truth is that 20 years after the Earth Summit in Rio, at a time when 1.4 billion people in the world live in desperate poverty and the environment is in crisis, governments have produced an agreement which is stunning only in its lack of urgency. We leave Rio with a text that contains no deadlines for countries to take action and lamentably few other targets.
‘We are disappointed that the world’s most powerful countries have given so little momentum to sustainable development but we remain determined to build on what Rio+20 has given us – and to inspire others to join us.
‘There is some hope that Rio will yet have a positive legacy, because leaders have committed to create a new set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) which will set the direction of global development work from 2015.
‘The SDGs could help make global food production more sustainable and ensure that many millions more people can enjoy clean water and sustainable, modern energy. But this will only happen if citizens keep up the pressure as work to shape the goals continues.’
On the UK’s role in Rio, Dr Doig said: ‘The UK played a more enlightened and constructive role than many in Rio. We’ve been encouraged by how, under the Deputy Prime Minister’s leadership, the UK has committed to help lead international work on the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
‘We’re pleased with much of what the text says on the SDGs – for instance that they must be universal, developed by a wide range of different interests and integrated with whatever replaces the Millennium Development Goals.
‘But we’re disappointed that the text is so vague on how – and even if – the SDGs will be merged with what succeeds the MDGs to produce a single set of strong global development goals.
‘We would also urge that opportunities are created for greater civil society involvement in the SDG process going forward to ensure that the voices of all, including those living in poverty, are heard.
‘The UK has also stood up in Rio as a champion of corporate sustainability reporting, which could help make companies across the world accountable for their impacts on people and the planet.
‘Mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions will give them a major incentive to clean up their acts. That, in turn, will be good news for people living in poverty across the world, who are first and worst affected by the changing climate.
‘Additional help for smallholder farmers, many of whom are already experiencing the impact of climate change, is also welcome.’
On the issue of sustainable energy for all Dr Doig said: ‘The text contains some good words on access to energy, but it’s completely devoid of urgency. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative is merely ”noted” and there is no target date for achieving universal access to energy, by 2030 or any other date.
‘Nor have world leaders heeded civil society’s warning that as it stands, SE4All risks being hijacked by multinational power companies, at the expense of the poor people it is supposed to help.
‘The text is also depressingly weak on renewable energy, with no targets – just a vague wish to improve the share of renewables in the energy mix.
‘Furthermore, it opens the door to the dangerous idea that ‘clean fossil fuel’ could be considered as low-carbon energy. That is open to a very wide interpretation and could lead to dirty fuels such as shale gas being classified as ‘low carbon’.’
On corporate sustainability reporting Dr Doig added: ‘The text includes some weak language suggesting sustainability reporting by publicly listed and large companies. More encouragingly, it opens the door for a sustainability reporting process that moves forward from Rio+20 and must be taken up by companies, governments and civil society.
‘That process could help to ensure that companies – good and bad – are held to account for the way they affect the environment and people’s lives, and pushed towards significant improvements.’
Christian Aid policy director Christine Allen said: ‘The world is running out of time to address these global crises, and we urge the international community to take seriously the processes and opportunities that Rio+20 has signposted.’