From ‘Sliding Doors’ to a paradigm shift – What’s needed in Rio+20?

The Rio +20 Earth Summit, taking place in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, needs to build upon the momentum begun by the last round of UNFCCC climate change negotiations in Duban, South Africa. That was the message of an event in Parliament yesterday evening, organised by the Aldersgate Group (co-sponsored by WWF) and attended by the BES Policy Team.

Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, gave the opening speech, emphasising the positives which had emerged from the climate change negotiations; primarily from the ‘huddle’ called on the conference floor at the eleventh hour by the South African delegation. Using the analogy of the film ‘Sliding Doors’, where each of two realities were equally possible depending on the choices made in an instant, Chris Huhne suggested that the outcomes of the talks could have been very different, if it wasn’t for strong leadership by a number of countries.

Outcomes from Durban included an extension to the Kyoto Protocol and a commitment to develop a successor- an international legally-binding framework to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases – no later than 2015, to come into force in 2020. Parties to the negotiations have also recognised the need for greater urgency and ambition in tackling emissions; acknowledging that the timetable for action and the pledged emissions cuts lag someway behind the necessary momentum suggested by climate science.

One of the important commitments to emerge from Durban is to a Green Climate Fund, which will assist developing countries in their efforts to establish clean energy mechanisms. Member countries of the UNFCCC are required to contribute to the fund, although the Secretary of State and others at the Aldersgate Group event recognised that public money will need to be used to leverage significant amounts of private funding for the mechanism to be a success; there were questions around whether and how, this would be possible. The Green Climate Fund builds on the pledges made at the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, to mobilise $100 billion per year for clilmate change adaptation and mitigation.

In a question and answer session to follow the Secretary of State’s speech, one delegate challenged the Government to be yet more ambitious during international negotiations, inviting Chris Huhne to give his view on innovative approaches that can really help to move the international community towards a ‘paradigm shift’ and new political reality. To this, Chris Huhne replied that investment in science and innovation would be key; an interesting statement given the extensive analysis in recent months by the Campaign for Science and Engineering that the UK science budget is actually going to decline in real terms to 2015, whilst other countries are investing in R and D as a way out of recession.

David Nussbaum, CEO of WWF UK, speaking later in the evening, emphasised the importance of Rio +20 leading to action, not rhetoric and to a vision of human development proceeding in parallel with conservation of the planet’s ‘life support systems’ (ecosystem services). Consistency across the UK Government will be vital. A speaker from the Aldersgate Group echoed this point when calling for the Prime Minister to vest genuine responsibility in the negotiating team from Defra who will be sent to Rio; allowing substantial pledges to action to be made.

Finally, a speaker from Philips stressed the need for Rio +20 to build on the momentum and atmosphere of change which he felt was in evidence at Durban. To make genuine progress: efforts to advance technology must be continued; policy frameworks must be developed (a global treaty); innovative financing mechanisms are needed to take care of the upfront investments that will be necessary, along with changes to budgeting practice – emphasising that upfront costs may be high but long-term, this investment will reap dividends. Finally, it is vital to communicate the ecological benefits of clean energy and a decarbonised, sustainable economy to the public at large but, beyond this, the social benefits of this transition. Ultimately, this will translate to changes in individuals’ mindsets and so onwards to voting choices, consumer behaviour and to business decisions.

The final speaker, from the Aldersgate Group, was pragmatic, saying that ‘Durban teaches us that we must manage our expectations for Rio’; the pace of political negotiations and of change can be achingly slow. Alongside international negotiations, he suggested, we must develop a pluralistic consensus on the need for change.

An Aldersgate Group event on 16th May will see Secretary of State for the Environment, Caroline Spelman MP, deliver a speech looking forward to Rio +20 and outlining the UK Government’s position on the Summit.