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Rio+20: Business as Usual?

Jul 06, 2012 Written by  Dana McKelvey, DC Correspondent

516840As Bjorn Lomborg, a self-described “skeptical environmentalist," predicted days before the Rio+20, representatives emerged disappointed with the summit’s results.

The Rio+20, or the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, hosted 188 nations in Rio de Janeiro to discuss new forms of sustainable development. Some 45,000 people, including governmental, private sector, and NGO representatives, revisited the issues laid out twenty years ago at the 1992 Earth Summit, but they also sought to “move away from business-as-usual,” and combine decreased environmental harm with increased job opportunities worldwide.

The summit produced a nonbinding declaration, and several companies pledged to switch to clean energy sources or cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by a certain date. But experts were left wondering if these long-term and relatively low-pressure solutions actually constitute a “move away from business-as-usual.”

Drawing from his research as director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School, and author of the book-turned-documentary, Cool It, Bjorn Lomborg has asserted that summits like the Rio+20 are nothing but “business-as-usual” and that “business-as-usual” does not produce real change. Lomborg has gained a steady following: his ideas have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and the BBC, and has been recognized as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. Especially in light of the Rio+20 summit, Bjorn Lomborg has led several people to ask, “What really constitutes ‘sustainable’ development?”

The U.N. Rio+20 website defines sustainable development as “a holistic, equitable, and far-sighted approach” to the environment, and emphasizes seven critical issues: creating green jobs in the wake of the economic recession; improving the efficiency and use of renewable energy sources; reducing pollution and poverty in cities; supporting rural and agricultural development; providing clean and accessible water; managing the world’s oceans; and responding quickly to natural disasters.

Some experts (who likely disagree with Lomborg) contend that the Rio+20’s business initiatives will improve these critical areas. Citing the summit’s Natural Capital Leadership Compact signed by fifteen companies, and Natural Capital Declaration signed by twenty-four companies, they remain confident that nonbinding agreements in the private sector will incite change.

But ultimately, the representatives’ resolution, “The Future We Want,” offered the same suggestions set out at the 1992 Earth Summit. As Bradley Brooks of the Associated Press noted, “The word ‘reaffirm’ is used 59 times in the 49-page document.” Brooks also references Martin Khor’s concerns that, “We’ve sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success.”

Even the conference's Secretary-General, Sha Zukang, expressed dissatisfaction with what he hoped would be a productive meeting. While representatives avoided major confrontations, they also avoided major gains, offering long-term or fiscally “top-down” solutions that, according to Lomborg, have failed time and time again to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels—a dependence that impairs each of the seven critical areas Rio+20 hoped to improve.

Until companies find alternative energy sources to support consumers’ high-energy lifestyles, Lomborg argues, carbon emissions that contribute to global warming will continue to rise. In his recent essay for Foreign Affairs, he suggests that policies with huge costs will only provide benefits far down the line, and that providing consumers incentives to use alternative energy sources within a free-market framework may be the only plausible solution.

Moreover, Lomborg suggests that we view today’s predictions of global warming’s effects with a skeptical eye; citing Thomas Malthus’ eighteenth-century prediction that rises in population would outstrip rises in food supply, he asserts that future innovators will curb the global warming effects that we now see as imminent.

In a recent interview with Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, Lomborg noted that while .06 percent of all people die from global warming, 13 percent of all people die from air and water pollution. He clarified that the Rio+20 should not have focused exclusively on air and water pollution, but asserted that its overwhelming focus on global warming left little room to discuss other problems. Rather than adopting resolutions that aim to eliminate fossil fuels, he believes, the summit should have supported research in cheap, green forms of energy. Lomborg even argues that if we could make green energy cheaper than fossil fuels, we would have solved global warming by now.

Lomborg told Rose, “I think eventually we’re going to get it right.” But he maintained that resolutions, such as those coming out of the Rio+20, should not be taken as a sign of progress. Pointing to the relative inconsequentiality of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, Lomborg concluded, “Virtually nothing happened with Kyoto. It’s very hard to get people to emit less fuel unless there’s a global crisis. Every time we fail, and every time people just go to the next conference and say, ‘Let’s try again.’ At some point, we will have to realize this is failing, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

UN Photo by Mark Garten.

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