Rio+20: What does the Earth Summit’s outcome mean for climate change?

By John Parnell

With Rio+20 over, we’re left to pick through the bones of the final outcome and asses what impact it might have, if any, on global attempts to reduce and react to the consequences of climate change.

The Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, is a separate process from the UN’s long-running climate change talks (overseen by the UNFCCC) that were borne out of the original Earth Summit in Rio back in 1992.

World leaders at Rio applaud after finishing their portrait session. (Source: Flickr/UN_Photo_Conference)

The crossover between the objectives of the two, is obvious and the opportunities for progress enormous.

However, the outcome document has been criticized for failing to adequately address a number of development issues, particularly gender equality and the swift establishment of sustainable development goals, something the UK’s own international development department was keen on.

On climate change, there are a number of direct and indirect references that could boost efforts to cut emissions and increase resilience. Today, we’ll look at what is in the document (which can be viewed in full at the bottom of this page) and the potential impact for climate issues. Tomorrow, we’ll review what’s missing, what topics fell off the agenda and which issues championed heavily before the event, didn’t make the cut.

“We acknowledge that climate change is a cross-cutting and persistent crisis and express our concern that the scale and gravity of the negative impacts of climate change affect all countries and undermine the ability of all countries in particular, developing countries, to achieve sustainable development and the MDGs and threaten the viability and survival of nations.” Paragraph 25

This paragraph is not as bland as it looks.

The “viability and survival of nations” phrase is a victory for small island nations, many of whom have already begun migrations as a result of climate change. With increased sea level and more powerful storm surges, a devastating combination of coastal erosion and contamination of ground water supplies by seawater are making islands uninhabitable.

This acknowledgement should secure them special focus in the ongoing sustainable development talks. Four later paragraphs (178-181) build on this.

Ocean protection, particularly with relation to small island states such as Kiribati, is among the strongest components of the document. (Source: Rafael Avila Coya)

“We recognize that improving energy efficiency, increasing the share of renewable energy, cleaner and energy-efficient technologies are important for sustainable development, including in addressing climate change. We also recognize the need for energy efficiency measures in urban planning, buildings, and transportation, and in the production of goods and services and in the design of products. We also recognize the importance of promoting incentives in favour of, and removing disincentives to, energy efficiency and the diversification of the energy mix, including promoting research and development in all countries, including developing countries.” Paragraph 128

Several encouraging lines here but (and this is a running theme), the language is not strong enough.

“Recognizing that energy efficiency is important to combating climate change.” Surely that was not a point for debate?

The mention for transportation and product design is also fresh and will cut emissions and other resource depletion directly and indirectly if action on the ground results from the “recognition”.

The final line, about supporting efficiency measures in developing nations is better, but celebrations will be on pause until some money is on the table.

“We underline the importance of considering disaster risk reduction, resilience and climate risks in urban planning. We recognize the efforts of cities to balance development with rural regions.” Paragraph 135

For many, particularly those living on floodplains in the developing world, this is great to see. But again, what does recognize mean? You might recognize that your house is on fire, it’s what you do about it that’s key.

Much of the action on this sector could be carried out directly through the UNFCCC’s adaptation work, handled separately through its own talks.

“We call for support to initiatives that address ocean acidification and the impacts of climate change on marine and coastal ecosystems and resources.” Paragraph 166

Ocean-related paragraphs are among the strongest worded in the outcome document. Ocean acidification has been largely ignored in favour of sea level rise when it comes to the oceans and climate change. A specific reference to “calling for support” is effectively the rattle of a collection tin for research work looking to find solutions to this challenge.

A later paragraph (176) supports international protection specifically for coral reefs not just from acidification but also from damaging fishing practices and pollution. It also places mangrove conservation at the heart of the possible solutions.

Restoring mangroves has proven to be a successful way to reduce coastal erosion and to create jobs that rely on that particular ecosystem.

When you reach paragraphs 190 onwards, you find the designated climate change section. So will nations state their intention to cut greenhouse gas emissions (via the UNFCCC process of course)? No, but they do “express profound alarm that emissions…continue to rise globally”.

There is more grave concern over the so-called emissions gap and Parties to the UNFCCC urged to fulfill their commitments.

Most tellingly, the concept of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR), missing from the last climate change text, has re-appeared.

The Indian delegation pushed hard for the inclusion of CBDR. (Source: Flickr/UN_photo_conference)

In summary, the Rio+20 outcome moves climate action no further forward but it does still have a net positive benefit.

The relatively strong words on ocean protection will boost carbon sequestration in the seas and vulnerable nations can point to the document should they not receive enhanced protections and assistance.

The true effects of the document are impossible to predict as the wording places practically no pressure on politicians to do anything.

It does however, prove that they are aware not only of the problems, but of many of the solutions. They can’t use ignorance as a reason for inaction any longer.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at what’s missing from the document, and the resulting implications for climate change.

The full document:

The Future We Want – Final Document

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