Feelings on the Ground: Success and Failures

Under Claire’s last post, Martin asked what the feelings were like on the ground at Rio+20 and what could be viewed as successes? In this next post I will address the question of why people left and went to the People’s Summit.

The conference centre was very busy, and in all honesty I think a lot of people were happy just to be there. I myself certainly was. The conference centre is hardly memorable, besides the sheer size of the 5 pavilions. Neither will we miss miss the 1-2 hours spent in the car getting to the conference centre every day. But simply being at this amazing event gets the blood rushing and gives one a spring and a sense of purpose in their step.

I fully agree that it is always good to get people together to discuss these things. I also agree that we could perhaps do less talking and more action. Possibly similar to the action and societal change that I called for in my original blog post, starting with the individual. And now I will say what everyone has already been thinking about, that elephant in the room… WHAT ABOUT ALL THOSE CARBON EMISSIONS FROM FLYING THERE?!!!

A huge amount of emissions in fact and something that I imagine played on many people’s minds, including my own. Wouldn’t it be bold to not attend in the name of extra carbon emissions? To take the moral high-ground of Prof Kevin Anderson? I’m sure there were many who acted accordingly.

I calculated that my flights and car travel probably amounted to a bit over 2 tonnes of CO2, so lets call it 2.5 when we include the food and accommodation also. In 1 week I blew the average annual per capita emissions of an average Latin American citizen, or about a quarter of the current UK average of 8 tonnes per annum. But let’s put this into perspective and the potential importance of the event.

If we take 40,000 international delegates conservatively expelling 3 tonnes of GHGs on their trip to Rio (120,000t), and compare this to the 30 Giga tonnes  (30,000,000,000t), we get a marginal increase of somewhere in the order of 0.0004%.

Yes, in terms of global population we have consumed more than our fair share. But we should also consider what could have been and what was achieved.

Many decisions taken at Rio+20, either in the official text (there were few), or in the voluntary commitments (there were many) will have effects that could well outweigh the cost of carbon expended in the realisation of the conference. If we agreed to real transformational change it would be worth it.

The same goes for the ~R$100 million (~£35 million) spent by the Brazilian government to host the conference. It is hoped that investments orders of magnitude larger have been leveraged in the voluntary commitments, such as the $175 billion pledged for sustainable transport by the Asian Development Bank. This sounds great and there were many more similar pledges but we must ask ourselves two questions:

  1. How will we make sure these commitments turn into actions?
  2. Can we genuinely attribute these commitments to the Rio+20 process, or must we assume that some would have happened regardless?
To date there have been 715 voluntary commitments made, totalling billions if not trillions in investment. Sceptics might say this is mostly publicity stunts, but perhaps that is what sustainable development needs. It is difficult to hold companies to account and we know governments lack the will to lead and represent the feelings of their citizens. It seems strange that so many can be so clear on The Future We Want and yet governments continue to act for us instead of represent us.

So yes, unfortunately, and deservedly, there has a been a lot of criticism primarily in the news. From my personal view, frankly, the fact that no decent resolution would be reached was not news. This was very much expected by all. It would have been news if an amazing text had emerged at the last minute! But we knew it was not to be.

In fact, many youth delegates felt so disillusioned and disenfranchised with the whole UN process that they simply gave up on Thursday afternoon. Following a parade with a banner titled The Future We Bought, there was a sit in staged outside the main plenary. This was followed by a session of the human microphone and concluded with a noisy exit at which point over 150 people handed in their accredited passes. Where did they go? The People’s Summit …. to be continued in the next post.

But for the time being read this blog Why I walked out of Rio+20 – a very moving and heartfelt piece of writing.

Ed Byers, PhD Civil Engineering and Geosciences

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About Edward Byers

Ph.D student at Newcastle University, Scientific Officer of Planet Earth Institute.
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