21 June 2012

Africa: Rio+20 - Sabotaging Sustainable Development

analysis

The messages of gloom and doom have been out there for some time now. Just about every other commentator is pronouncing on an impending failure of outcome for the Rio+20 Summit on sustainable development being hosted in Brazil this week.

We are being told to temper our expectations. A colleague of mine has gone so far as to suggest that Rio+20 could be signalling the end of all big summits. To be sure, talk shop fatigue must certainly be settling into the weary bones of diplomats and activists alike, as reaching consensus on a globally binding agreement appears as elusive as finding the mythical Holy Grail.

Regardless of trying to reach agreement on the broad parameters of sustainable development; for years now the world has tried and failed to come to any agreement at all on somewhat more focused issues such as trade via the WTO or a climate agreement via the various UNFCC COP meetings - or quite disturbingly, on a collectively agreed definition for "racism" for that matter, as America, Israel and half of Europe boycotted UNESCO's 2009 World Conference on Racism. Just this past weekend, the G20 meeting is reported to have had the Europeans pitted against the rest of the world, as European leaders responded stiffly to global criticism of the Eurozone crisis, which threatens to bring the entire world economy down.

Many attribute this quarrelsome phase and its contemporaneous discord to the shifting sands of geopolitics, which in recent years has undeniably disrupted an order of things once considered indestructible. Where the Western perspective once dominated and set the tone, it is now being challenged. But we're far from identifying any clear winners or losers just yet. There's still a great deal more petulant posturing to come from the key protagonists in the unfolding mêlée of this new multi-polar world order.

And this is largely how the issue is being reported with respect to Rio+20. Western leaders such as America's Barack Obama, Germany's Angela Merkel and Britain's David Cameron have all skipped the event being hosted by formidable emerging economy, Brazil.

A key stumbling block for the developed world: Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration, which calls for "common but differentiated responsibility". The principle roughly calls for developed countries to acknowledge that their industrialised economies place greater pressures on the global environment and to agree to deeper emissions cuts, as they are indeed the world's principle polluters.

But developed countries (notably the US) object to differentiated targets, while emerging economies demand the chance to catch up by not having their economic ambitions hemmed in by environmental obligations equivalent to those of the first world. So the lines are drawn and the stage is set for yet another round of inconclusive talks. Reports earlier this week already spoke of a "weak text" to be adopted at the summit.

As the world prepares to receive another watered down deal, what do we as concerned citizens do to hold our leaders accountable when they don't lead from the front? Surely this situation makes a strong case for citizens of individual countries to hold our leaders accountable to higher standards.

The debate about the essence of sustainable development is all but drowned out in the positions that have been staked by the key role players. Yet, it is absolutely vital for us to remember what was so groundbreaking about the first Rio Summit regarding its commitment to sustainable development.

Sustainable development, as defined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has multifaceted goals that are meant to bring balance to the unhealthy imbalances that sadly characterise our world today. It's not just about bringing us back from the brink of complete environmental destruction, which we are dangerously careering towards, but also about addressing the most pressing problem facing the world today - grossly unequal economic development as well as related and deeply disturbing disparities in social development.

There is recognition that the problem demands something broader and deeper than a purely ecological response. And in recent years the concept of the "green economy" has surfaced to show the strong ties between economy, ecology and social wellbeing. It's the triple bottom line that is intended to steer us away from the current short-sighted focus on GDP growth and its failed trickle down model.

The "green economy" features prominently in national and international policy discourse. At Rio+20 it was supposed to be discussed within the context of sustainable development with an emphasis on poverty eradication.

Here in South Africa, in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crash, our economy shed far more jobs than are replaceable, leaving millions more of our people beneath the breadline. In response, our government has proffered the "green economy" as a strategic intervention. More than that, the green economy is being touted as the silver bullet solution for job creation.

However, there remains a yawning gap between the promise of a green economy and actual practise.

Our primary focus if we were to prioritise the green economy for poverty eradication would be to invest in renewable energy and clean technologies as well as prioritise grassroots development that allows local communities to capitalise on communal natural resources through projects that embody sustainability with respect to their long-term (not short-term) outcomes.

The key markers of a green economy would be the extent to which it promotes green services and decent work while protecting the environment.

Despite the adoption of a Green Accord late last year and much noise about job creation through the green economy, the major drivers of the economy in South Africa are still steeped in dirty, dangerous and capital-intensive technologies with unsustainable outcomes.

And while South Africa's much-vaunted Integrated Resource Plan does commit the country to fairly ambitious renewable energy targets by 2030, if our track record is anything to go by - evident in the kind of investments that are currently being prioritised by our government - then these targets will remain just that: targets.

The following cases speak volumes about the ill-advised direction South Africa is pursuing.

With respect to dirty technologies, as recently as 2008/2009, the World Bank and African Development Bank approved massive loans to South Africa for the development of new coal-fired generators. As a result, South Africa will continue to hold the dubious honour of being one of the largest green house gas emitting countries in the world for the foreseeable future.

Worse still, our government openly flouts public opinion in its stubborn pursuit of nuclear energy, an extremely dangerous technology. Billions of Rands are being poured into the development of three nuclear power plants. This, while Germany announced that it will shut down all its nuclear power plants in the aftermath of Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster. Japan itself is facing enormous internal public pressure against taking its nuclear reactors back online since the disaster.

Even more problematic though is the fact that South Africa is duping the public by peddling nuclear and shale gas as clean and green energy.

In an interview she gave to the Guardian this week in the run up to Rio+20, Bianca Jagger had the following to say about nuclear, shale gas and hydro electric energy, which her own government (the UK) is trying to rebrand as green energy. She said, "Those are not green. The only way they could become green is if they were painted green." Jagger attended the first Rio summit 20 years ago, has been working on environmental issues for years and was recently invited to become an ambassador for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). She must surely know what she is talking about when she says that the public is being duped on this issue.

By promoting coal, nuclear and shale gas, South Africa continues to breach its promises of sustainability. Worse still, when the big corporations come knocking on our government's door, their keen interest is hard to disguise.

Shell's application for the exploration rights to "frack the Karoo" for shale gas is a case in point, as is the recent case of the Xolobeni community on the Wild Coast where our government has once again accepted an application from a big multinational company for mining rights to the beautiful sand dunes of the Wild Coast in Xolobeni, which contain titanium.

Instead of supporting the community of Xolobeni's wish for an eco-tourism project (read triple bottom line green economy project), our officials are still considering their options with the anxious community on one side and the deep-pocketed big corporation on the other.

South Africa's weakness for short-term gains is sure to penalise our present and future generations, as we fall further behind in our ability to adapt to clean and renewable technologies as well as lose our comparative advantage in the process.

Africa's largest wind farm to date will not be hosted in South Africa. That honour is going to Kenya, which will be taking Africa's biggest wind farm online in December 2013. The wind farm, to be hosted in the country's Turkana region, will contribute to about 20% of Kenya's energy needs.

Overall when it comes to embracing the principles of sustainable development, South Africa's track record leaves much to be desired. The flawed outcomes of Rio+20 are no excuse for our government's own lack of commitment. Geopolitical influence, whatever that may mean for those in power in Pretoria, is no substitute for visionary thinking that puts people and planet first.

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