Is Rio+20 capable of a constitutional moment?

The weaponry of the memorable phrase was deployed this week to turn heads towards the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference. Social and natural science research commissioned by the organisers concludes that “navigating the Anthropocene” requires a “constitutional moment” at Rio+20 if environmental disaster risk is to be reduced.

Post-1945 reforms which saw the founding of the UN and the Bretton Woods Institutions have been invoked to illustrate the envisaged scale of this constitutional awakening.

I don’t think it’s any secret that many earth scientists feel that these post-1945 institutions need picking up and dropping from a great height. Many non-scientists also perceive the Anthropocene more in terms of survival than mere navigation.

However, given the political context of Rio+20, it’s inevitable that the recommendations of the Earth System Governance Project don’t match the rhetoric. But the scientists are right to focus on the institutional framework for sustainable development.

This is the boring bit of Rio+20. Most people prefer to talk about new approaches to GDP, low carbon development and how to feed the world in a changing climate.

The problem with these areas is that any agreement at Rio will be non-binding – there’s nothing to stop governments from going home and claiming that their unique circumstances oblige them to delay reforms. It’s much harder for an individual country to play this game on global governance issues.

There are two further reasons for optimism that institutional reform might prove to be the soft underbelly of the hardball politics expected to rule at Rio+20.

First, the US submission is uncharacteristically sympathetic to the pursuit of sustainable development through reformed UN agencies and multilateral institutions.

The second area of hope lies in the content of the relevant section of the zero draft of the Rio+20 outcome document. Of course it’s vague and toothless, offering constitutional tinkering rather than vision.

But the text does open doors on more topics than might have been expected. It’s much easier for negotiators to amend sentences than introduce new ones.

Take this statement for example: “we recognize that sustainable development must be given due consideration by the International Financial Institutions.” This doesn’t say anything useful but it puts the IFIs into play.

For these reasons, it’s worth investing time in what the scientists call “earth system governance.” Here’s the most important extract from the recommendations contained in the Policy Brief published by the conference:

Environmental goals must be mainstreamed into the activities of global economic institutions, while global trade and investment regimes need to be embedded in a normative context of social, developmental and environmental values. Discriminating in world trade law between products on the basis of production processes is critical, if investments in cleaner products and services are to be encouraged. Such discrimination should be based on multilateral agreement to prevent protectionist impacts

I haven’t been able to read the full research paper published in Science and I wonder if it clarifies the how of these ideas. The stuff about world trade is not just a hot potato, the spud is on fire.

I won’t digress here except to mention that a panel debate on Day 3 of the conference – Realizing green economies: Harnessing trade for sustainable development across multiple levels of governance – is well stocked with relevant speakers.

Let’s stick with the recommendations on mainstreaming goals and embedded values. The only way to do this properly is to rewrite the mission statements, or equivalent guiding principles, of the target institutions. That would be radical on the scale that the science community demands.

Take the IMF as an example. The current Rio+20 outcome document will result in a few progressive corporations, and maybe even countries, experimenting with internalised environmental costs and broader indicators than GDP. Others in time will follow. Last of all will be the IMF.

It should be the other way around because the power of the IMF over national economic management compels its methods to be followed. That is unfortunate because the IMF knows no other measure of progress than conventional macro-economic growth. That is its trademark obsession, as evidenced in every press release about every country visit.

Poor countries jeopardise critical short term financing if their GDP targets are missed. Rich countries live in fear that a negative IMF report about GDP growth will provoke the rating agencies into a downgrade. Obsessed with its triple A rating, the UK government is about to dump years of environmental regulations “to put fewer burdens on business.”

We need triple A ratings for social and environmental indicators which are worshipped by governments no less than their financial ratings.

Despite the element of timidity, there is much of value in the conference Policy Brief, Transforming Governance and Institutions for a Planet under Pressure. I’m not sure why some of its recommendations have been omitted from the formal Rio+20 submission on behalf of the scientific community.

For example, there’s no mention of the suggestion that majority voting should be introduced for aspects of international environmental agreements.

I mention this because responsibility for the submission lies with the International Council for Science which is also the underlying scientific sponsor of the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference.

We should also remember that time is passing by. This week’s “constitutional moment” was in fact a recycled press release dating back to the November publication of the Policy Brief. The only “news” was that the background research has attained its formal academic publication in Science.

The designated Major Groups (of which the Science and Technology community is one) will be meeting on the weekend immediately before Planet Under Pressure 2012, in order to prepare for the 3rd intersessional negotiations for Rio+20 starting on March 26.

Nonetheless, the process of pulling together the views of social and natural scientists through research which is itself peer-reviewed will be admired and envied by the other Major Groups.

Extracting an equivalent concise summary of recommendations on governance from the global NGO community has been like telling an infants’ class to sit still.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK