|Image by Friends of the Earth International|
The United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil concluded this past weekend with no new government pledges. On the other hand, multinationals scored a public relations victory by claiming that they will implement $50 billion of sustainable changes to help save the environment, under an initiative led by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
The conference was supposed to take advantage of the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro to commit to further efforts to save the global environment.
But the final inter-governmental declaration of the 2012 conference was widely panned. “The text was so anodyne there was nothing in it which could be disagreed. So the talks fell, in tumult, to a lifeless ocean,” writes Fiona Harvey at the Guardian.
“We’ve sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success,” said Martin Khor, executive director of the Geneva-based South Centre and a member of the UN Committee on Development Policy.
“They came, they talked, but they failed to act. Paralysed by inertia and in hock to vested interests, too many leaders were unable to join up the dots and solve the connected crisis of environment, equality and economy,” wrote Wisdom Mdzungari in of Zimbabwe.
Not so multinationals. Chad Holliday, chairman of the Bank of America and former president of DuPont, who co-chaired the the UN led Sustainable Energy For All initiative, was quoted in New Scientist saying: "Companies are here because they see opportunities."
“Microsoft has committed to going carbon neutral and will be rolling out an internal carbon fee that will apply to Microsoft’s business operations in over 100 countries. Italian energy company Eni has earmarked approximately $5 billion to achieve its gas flaring and carbon intensity reduction goals; and, the Renault-Nissan Alliance has committed approximately $5 billion to commercialize affordable zero-emission vehicles,” boast the United Nations in an official statement.
“Bank of America has set a ten year $50 billion environmental business goal. the World Bank Group has committed to doubling the leverage of its energy portfolio by mobilizing private, donor and public contributions to World Bank-supported projects."
Twenty years ago, at the original 1992 Earth Summit, similar pledges were made by the World Bank and a number of multinationals, yet today emissions of greenhouse gases in a number of countries exceeded worst case estimates.
For example at the Earth Summit in 1992, 170 nations agreed to voluntary reductions of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. At the Kyoto protocol meeting in 1997 countries agreed to cut emissions by an average of 5 percent by 2012.
However, in April 2012, the U.S. announced that its greenhouse gas emissions were 10.5 percent above 1990 levels. Canada was over by 17 percent and Spain by 30 percent. Not all did that badly - Germany cut emissions by 25 percent.
The new Sustainable Energy For All pledges represent just a drop in the bucket, say activists. Daniel Mittler, political director of Greenpeace noted: “The epic failure of Rio+20 was a reminder [that] short-term corporate profit rules over the interests of people…They spend $1 trillion a year on subsidies for fossil fuels and then tell us they don’t have any money to give to sustainable development,” he told the Guardian.
Some activists say that the initiative is just “greenwash” and that the Sustainable Energy For All initiative proves that the UN has sold out to corporate interests. “Governmental positions have been hijacked by corporate interests linked to polluting industries,” said Nnimmo Bassey, chairman of Friends of the Earth International.