After Rio+20, developing countries must take the lead

After Rio+20, developing countries must take the lead

By David Dickson | June 29, 2012 |

The recent Rio+20 summit has confirmed that sustainable development will only be achieved through the political leadership of developing countries.

Two and a half years ago, the Copenhagen climate change conference (COP15) ended in rancorous and highly public disagreement between developed and developing nations on what was needed to prevent further global warming.

From the beginning of negotiations over the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (dubbed Rio+20), which took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it was widely reported that the Brazilian government was desperate to avoid the same fate.

Taking the lead

What became clearer than ever at Rio was that the key to global sustainable development does not lie in the logical arguments coming from proponents in the developed world, including its scientific communities. Rather, it now lies in the combination of political muscle and imaginative thinking in the developing world, particularly the so-called “emerging economies” of countries such as Brazil, China and India.

In Rio, these countries insisted that a global commitment to making the transition to “green economies” is only valid if it includes a transfer of significant financial and technical resources from the North to the South. Their argument was that such a transfer would compensate for the fact that this transition is necessary because of the consumption patterns of the North.

Furthermore, the emerging economies — and China in particular — are coming to realise that their own internal environmental problems, from air pollution to an increase in flooding related to climate change, need to be addressed urgently as the unacceptable by-products of economic growth.

At the same time, a combination of technical ingenuity and low labour costs makes them well placed to become the leading producers of sustainable technologies for the rest of the world­ — as China has already shown in exporting solar energy technologies to Africa, for example.

Galvanising the grassroots

By the end of the meeting, more than 700 pledges — valued at over US$500 billion — had been registered for concrete actions. Each of these was required to commit to quantifiable outcomes within a fixed timeframe. Together they show that a massive global commitment to sustainable development already exists, even without promises of resource transfers from political leaders.

Reigning in corporate power

But even if grassroots or voluntary initiatives are a necessary condition for sustainable development, they are not sufficient. It ignores the extent to which the key directions and components of economic growth are inevitably set at the top, rather than the bottom, of the political pyramid. Furthermore, without an all-embracing political framework to ensure coherence between individual actions, stakeholders remain motivated primarily by their own self-interest (or that of their stakeholders or shareholders), rather than a commitment to a common good.

Paving the future

The scientific meetings held in the run-up to Rio+20 underlined the urgency of taking action on many fronts. Rio+20 opened the door for action on some of these, such as protecting the marine environment or mountain ecosystems. It also endorsed closer interaction between scientific communities and policymakers — another essential element of any future strategy. But the meeting also highlighted the political challenge of changing the course of a global economy still wedded largely to fossil fuels and non-sustainable patterns of consumption.

It also showed that the developed world lacks the commitment to make the necessary changes and accept the painful consequences. It is now up to the developing world and its emerging economies to show that they can do better and providing the political muscle to make this happen.

David Dickson
Editor, SciDev.Net

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This article has been edited for the purposes of this blog. The complete article can be accessed at SciDev.Net

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