The Rio+20 Earth Summit has been deservedly derided as a dismal failure. Industrialised countries refused to commit to allocating a single additional penny to help poorer countries move towards a green economy, and the final agreement was nothing more than a reaffirmation of previous commitments.
Nick Clegg, who headed the UK delegation in Rio, was clear about who he blamed for the failure. No, it wasn’t the oil and gas lobbyists, nor the fossil fuel addicted governments of the industrialised world.
It was the poor.
According to Clegg, Rio failed because developing countries were “antagonistic” towards the EU’s plan to build a green economy.
This is rich indeed given that the UK government, alongside the rest of the EU, blocked almost every progressive proposal coming from the developing world during the pre-summit negotiations.
The G77 – a group of 131 developing countries – went to Rio calling on the industrialised world to commit to providing additional funding to help the world’s poorest countries develop on a sustainable basis. Thanks to the truly antagonistic stance of Clegg and his counterparts in Europe and North America, this came to nothing. Other proposed additions to the text, including the need to radically reform the international financial architecture to ensure greater sustainability, were also blocked by the richer countries at the summit.
In fact, the agreement would have been much worse had the G77 not stood strong against efforts by the US and EU to delete references to some of the basic principles agreed at the original 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The US even objected to the document reaffirming the universal right to food and water. If the US and UK governments had got their way, the agreement would have been a significant step back from what was achieved 20 years ago.
Developing countries were also successful in averting some of most damaging EU proposals, including the large-scale replacement of fossil fuels with biomass (which would cause widespread hunger as land would be used to grow fuel not food), and slapping a price tag on free natural resources like water and biodiversity, which would allow for the corporate domination of the natural world.
So the reality of what happened at Rio is the polar opposite of what Clegg claims. Although developing countries were unable to force a strongly progressive agenda through at Rio, they were nevertheless successful in averting the worst of what Clegg and his allies had in store.
But Clegg’s outburst is symptomatic of the increasing trend towards pointing the finger at developing countries and blaming them for failure to take international action in the face of global environmental degradation and runaway climate change. Such diatribes usually focus on rising emissions in some developing countries, especially China, while totally ignoring the fact that the global north still accounts for the lion’s share of emissions and the fact northern multinational companies often cause much of the environmental degradation in poorer countries. While the huge increases in Chinese emissions are indeed worrying, on a per capita basis China still only emits about 40 per cent of what the average American emits. And that is disregarding the fact that while the carbon emissions in industrialised countries have been high for many decades, Chinese emissions were negligible as little as 20 years ago. Other countries in the G77 emit much less than China – the average Brit emits more carbon in three days than the average resident of Uganda does in a whole year.
So as the scientific consensus grows that we are using resources at a rate far beyond what the planet can sustain, it is vital that we reject the blame game pursued by Clegg and his ilk and ensure that the necessary changes to the global economy do not come at the expense of the poor.