Toward Rio+20: Fighting for International Environmental Law

Next year the international community is planning its fourth  major summit on the global environment.  The three previous meetings were held first in Stockholm in 1972 (U.N. Conference on the Human Environment), in Rio in 1992 (the even bigger U.N. Convention on Environment and Development (UNCED) and in Johannesburg in 2002 (the disappointing U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (USSD)).  The 2012 event is formally called the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 in the vernacular because it will come 20 years after UNCED in Rio) — note how the term “Environment” fell out of the title of the event in 2002 and still is looking for a home.

Stockholm started the ball rolling by firmly placing the environment on the international agenda. UNCED  produced a plethora of legal, normative, policy riches: the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, Commission on Sustainable Development, the Rio Declaration, a sustainable development road-map called Agenda 21, and more. USSD, however, was organised without a rudder or leadership and the top, was long on rhetoric and non-obligations, and produced nothing of legal consequence. Unfortunately, it looks like we may be headed that way again in 2012.

As Jim Thomas, I think pretty accurately, reports today in Grist:

Far from cooking up a plan to save the Earth, what may come out of the summit could instead be a deal to surrender the living world to a small cabal of bankers and engineers — one that will dump the promises of the first Rio summit along the way. Tensions are already rising between northern countries and southern countries over the poorly defined concept of a global “Green Economy” that will be the centerpiece of the summit.

What is a global green economy? That, of course, is the multi-trillion dollar question. . . .

. . . Just as the global climate negotiations, most recently in Cancun, have veered away from the difficult job of agreeing to slash emissions and lurched instead toward politically easy gestures on carbon trading and solar panels, so the green economy brigade would like to steer the Rio+20 summit away from addressing the root causes of our ecological crises. They would like the emphasis to be on a “forward looking” effort to establish new financial arrangements based on so-called “ecosystem services” while liberating funds for iconic “green technologies.”

Two heavyweight reports from UNEP, on “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB) and a “Green Economy Report” (GER) set the tone for this plan. They argue that nature, like an industrial contractor, should be precisely measured and valued according to the natural “services” that it provides — such as water cleaning, carbon sequestration, and nitrogen cycling. Such services can then be paid for, offset, or securitized in the form of invented credits that can be traded to raise conservation money. Meanwhile new “eco-efficient” technologies can be developed and deployed increasing the value of these ecosystem services while also generating revenue. If it sounds more like a business plan than an agreement to protect the Earth that’s because business is firmly in the driving seat. The lead author of both the TEEB and GER is an investment banker on sabbatical from Deutsche Bank, and the most vocal cheerleaders are the Davos crowd of Fortune 500 companies and G8 diplomats.

Most alarmingly, some of these voices are positioning the “green economy” as an upgrade or replacement to the “outmoded” concept of “sustainable development” that was agreed on 20 years ago. They seem content to throw out Rio’s “baby” of sustainable development out for new green bathwater just as the baby reaches the age of maturity. While “sustainable development” has its problems as an approach, it at least explicitly attempted to enmesh environmental goals in larger social and economic goals such as reducing poverty and creating a just and equitable society. By contrast, the idea of a green economy is sustainable-development-lite — long on technical fixes and band-aid solutions, short on confronting the root causes of poverty, inequality, and oppression that drive environmental destruction.

At a packed side event in New York last week entitled “Whose Green Economy?,” Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Salon charged that this repackaged green capitalism was a distraction from the real issues and commitments that Rio+20 needs to address to realize sustainable development. He warned that the new forms of mercantilism and speculation being proposed could further despoil nature while entrenching existing injustices. Indigenous peoples and social justice movements who have fought against land displacement brought about by the REDD+ provisions of the recent Cancun agreement are particularly alarmed that the same commodification approach is now being proposed to extend to soils, oceans, and more. As Uruguayan activist Silvia Ribeiro points out, “In the wake of the largest financial crisis in history, the same bankers who can’t even keep their own house in order now claim they can manage the planet. Excuse us for not believing them.”

All very worrying.  However, I am currently teaching one of the most keen and enthusiastic groups of International Environmental Law students that I’ve had since 1994 and they are not sitting back.  They are anticipating Rio+ 20 in research they are carrying out across a range of pressing international environmental problems.  They have also, on their own, decided to organise a high profile international environmental law symposium in the lead up to the “son of” Johannesburg USSD at which they will also present their research.

I am proud to present a DRAFT announcement (below) of the Symposium, which will be held Saturday, 28 May. Appropriate sponsorship badging still needs to be put in place on the flyer below (ANU Centre of International and Public Law, ANU Australian Centre for Environmental Law, ANU Law Student Society, ANU Student Association), but I want to provide notice of the event as early as possible.  The program, itself, is still being finalised and will be available shortly, but the event will include two plenary sessions with invited speakers and 2-3 sessions with concurrent workshops led by my students.  Confirmed speakers include thus far:

* Hon. Brian Preston, Chief Judge, NSW Land and Environment Court
* Prof. Rob Fowler, IUCN Academy & University of South Australia
* A/Prof. Erika Techera, Macquarie University
* A/Prof. Michael Eburn, ANU
* A/Prof. Don Anton, ANU
* Ms Kirsty Ruddock, Environmental Defenders’ Office (Sydney)
* Mr. Aaron Wu, Senior Policy Office, International Division, Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency
Let me just say that this is an event that has been driven by my students from the outset and has grown organically. It has resulted in, amongst other things, the creation of the first ANU Environmental Law Student Society (Yeah!).  Another goal of my students is to try to establish a national Australian Environmental Law Student Society so academic colleagues in Australia, please encourage your students are encouraged to attend.  It’s free.
For any colleague in Canberra on the day, you are more than welcome to attend and it would be a pleasure to see you.  More details to follow. (Click on the flyer below to enlarge)
Here is my own presentation at the Symposium arguing that the time has come to jettison Sustainable Development as the organising principle for international environmental policy and law.


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