Hanoi — The upcoming U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro could be more positive for the environment than recent international climate summits as long as it attracts enough world leaders and tackles economic concerns as well as environmental challenges, according to a top climate expert.
Saleemul Huq of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) told AlertNet that Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff must convince other heads of government that a global agreement can be reached at the Rio+20 summit, and they should be part of the talks.
"The challenges are very political. (Rousseff) now has to reassure (world leaders), 'Don't worry, we'll get everything in place, there won't be arguments, I've talked to everybody about this'," Huq said on the sidelines of the sixth International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change in Hanoi last week. "If they're confident she can pull this off, then they'll (attend)."
As of last Friday, more than 130 heads of state, vice presidents, heads of government and deputy prime ministers were on the speakers list for the Rio+20 conference, from June 20-22.
But some have grown weary of environmental meetings after the disappointing 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen where leaders failed to agree on a new, binding treaty on climate change, Huq said.
"That's really something they're afraid of and want to avoid at all costs (in Rio)," he said.
Huq, a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth assessment report, also urged civil society groups and environmentalists to approach the fight against climate change from an economic perspective, because that's what decision makers are most concerned with.
"We cannot be relegated to talking about trees and forests. Important as they are, that is not where decisions are made that are going to affect the rest of the planet," he said.
The danger, if those key elements are not in place, is "another watered-down agreement" with little teeth to tackle climate change and other environmental problems, Huq warned.
ROUTE MAP BEYOND THE MDGS?
Time may be running out fast, with the event starting in less than two months. Still, in Huq's view, Brazil - as a powerful developing country - is in a good position to find consensus and broker a deal.
It has the confidence of other developing countries and won't be seen regarded with as much suspicion as Western nations, he said.
The pre-conference talks seem to be leading towards a Rio+20 outcome that sets in motion actions looking beyond the 2015 expiration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), he said.
The poverty- and health-focused MDGs could be replaced by a new set of targets that include environmental, social justice and equity goals, with world leaders agreeing to settle on them by 2014, Huq suggested.
"That could be sold as a positive outcome and might entice heads of state to come (to the Rio meeting) and sign up to it," he said.
STILL BEHAVING BADLY
Nonetheless, concerns over yet another toothless declaration remain real, because the world seems to have learned little from the financial crisis that has troubled rich nations since 2008, Huq warned.
Twenty years after the first Earth Summit in Rio created a wide-ranging blueprint for action to achieve sustainable development worldwide, societies are still headed in the wrong direction, he said.
"Rio+20 is an opportunity to re-direct the ship... and in my view, that has much more to do with how the global economy moves forward than with the environment or social justice or equity," he told AlertNet.
Changing course will mean targeting presidents and prime ministers, as well as finance and planning ministers. It is they who hold the reins of power rather than the environment ministers who traditionally attend climate meetings but have little clout inside governments, Huq said.
Reaching the "real decision makers who have made the wrong decisions in the past two decades and landed us where we are" is more important than arguing over the meaning of the terms "green economy" and "sustainable development", even though these are legitimate concerns, he said.
"We want development, but we want it to be both green and sustainable and equitable - and those elements have never been at all part of the thinking of the people who made decisions," Huq said. "Whether we achieve it or not is a big ask, but that's what we need to do."
A NEW CLIMATE WORLD ORDER?
Emerging economies such as Brazil, China and India who are "not part of the old system" offer an opportunity for climate activists to boost their influence, Huq believes.
"China, India, Brazil and South Africa have asserted themselves in the climate change negotiations and they will increasingly assert themselves in everything else... and they represent half the world's population," he said.
"They're going to decide our future. The 300 million Americans are not going to decide anything anymore," he added.
The global economy will be driven by these countries in the coming decade, and they can take the rest of the world with them if they decide to pursue a more sustainable growth path, Huq said.
"There's a lot to be played for at the national level in a new set of countries who are not locked into old habits. There will still be the same vested interests and enforcers, but there's a battle to be won there," he said.