LENORE TAYLOR June 23, 2012
"We live in threatening times, environmentally and economically, but these big gatherings to try to solve the problems have lost credibility and purpose" ... professor emeritus Jean-Pierre Lehmann. Photo: AP
Since the first Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago, Brazil's population has grown by 50 million and its economy has also grown strongly, at least until this year.
Its income inequality, while still confronting, has significantly improved.
In 1992, the drive to the city's huge conference centre took delegates through kilometres of fields. Now they drive on a new freeway that runs through a sprawl of high-rise apartment housing estates.
Over those same 20 years the continuing negotiations to try to find an international consensus on how to handle the environmental consequences of economic growth have hardly moved forward at all. And the second Rio Earth Summit hasn't done much to change that.
It reached a non-binding political agreement, which the dedicated negotiators hailed as a success in itself. But it was so denuded of any concrete commitments many observers labelled it meaningless.
As multilateral decision-making falters, some say it's time to take stock of the whole whirlwind of international mega-conferences and think about what they actually achieve.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is professor emeritus at the IMD business school and outgoing director of a think tank dedicated to free trade and sustainable global growth, the Evian Group. He says it's time to rethink the big international meetings, like the sustainable development meeting in Rio, the G20 meeting in Mexico or the separate continuing negotiations on climate change.
''We live in threatening times, environmentally and economically, but these big gatherings to try to solve the problems have lost credibility and purpose,'' he says.
''In fact they could do more harm than good because they cost a lot and raise public cynicism without actually achieving anything.''
He does not advocate giving up but says governments and the United Nations should be pressed to reform the conferences, which generate a self-perpetuating momentum, regardless of results.
Increasingly, governments and lobbyists are working around the faltering international talks, rather than through them, and use the formal UN negotiating sessions as a convenient gathering of experts and interested parties to provide a venue for launching other things they want to do.
Even some negotiators who have spent months arguing over the intricacies of the formal agreement's vague language concede that the biggest practical changes from the Rio meeting are likely to be as a result of things happening on the sidelines of the negotiations.
The talks failed to strike a grand bargain on new ''sustainable development goals'', for example, agreeing that we should have such goals but not on the broad themes that they should be about.
But the South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, persuaded scores of countries to contribute money to expand his Global Green Growth Institute, a body that provides developing countries with practical financial and technical information to make informed policy decisions. Australia was one of the largest donors with a contribution of $15 million.
One of the conference's biggest failures was its inability to even start talks on rules governing the exploitation of the high seas.
But the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, attracted both money and political support for his ''coral triangle'' - oceans between Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea that contain 76 per cent of the world 's coral species and 37 per cent of coral fish. Australia gave $8 million.
And a new focus for campaigners is to abandon efforts to try to get governments to agree to a big world plan on how to change things and instead focus on persuading financial institutions to change how they invest money.
Wolfgang Engshuber chairs the Principles for Responsible Investment - a UN-backed body that has persuaded 1000 institutional investors, with more than $32 trillion under management, to agree to consider social and environmental costs when they make investment decisions.
''Over time we think it will change how they invest,'' the former senior executive with Munich Re says.
The business director at the Australian think tank The Climate Institute, Julian Poulter, wants to persuade investors to go one step further. His work shows institutional investors typically have between 55 and 60 per cent of their investments in assets exposed to the risks of climate change and less than 2 per cent in low carbon assets. And he thinks that once they see this fact clearly identified, the wisdom of changing it will become obvious.
''Governments are bodies with a lifespan of three to five years … Institutional investors are the only people with an incentive to manage the long term financial risks of unsustainable investments,'' he says.
''All we have out of this conference is statements of intent and we have had intent for a very long time, just no action … the practical things here are happening on the sidelines.''
Julia Gillard's schedule for her three days at the conference suggests she's reached a similar conclusion about the relative merits of the conference's ostensible purpose (to negotiate an agreement between governments) and the rest of the things going on.
With the lacklustre agreement already struck by negotiators before almost 100 world leaders arrived, she conceded almost right away that it ''wasn't going to make an indelible mark on world history''.
Besides her set-piece speech to the conference, a five-minute address in a line-up of 190 other five-minute addresses, with few people paying attention to any of them, she spent her time in Brazil at side events and bilateral meetings.
It would be neater and more certain if governments were able to agree on how to tackle global social and environmental challenges. But it's not really happening. In a piecemeal way, the actions of governments, groups of governments, companies, lobby groups and citizens are trying to fill the gap.
Something has to, because economic growth continues, sustainable or otherwise.
No one could argue that the millions of Rio residents who have moved into their new high-rise apartments and bought their new cars since the last earth summit should be denied the comforts of modern living.
But, like city dwellers in developed countries, they are also spending a lot of their time now in traffic jams.
The trip from Copacabana Beach to the Riocentro conference hall that used to take less than an hour can now take two.
The whole point of the original sustainable development conference was for countries like Brazil to develop their economies in a smarter way.