THE OUTCOME of the UN Rio+20 conference last week was a welcome surprise. The conference was held to review the progress of the UN’s global programme to manage environmental issues, adopted in Rio de Janeiro 20 years before.
Rio+20 rejected calls by green NGOs to endorse green economics and restated the need for an open global system of free trade. The message was that global environmental problems must be tackled in ways that promote growth, trade and business.
Over the last decade, discussion on solving environmental problems has been seriously detached from reality. This was why the Copenhagen climate change meeting failed two and a half years ago. Western governments, the UK included, insisted that greenhouse gas emissions had to be globally regulated and reduced.
China, India and Brazil drew the line. Strategies that reduced growth were unacceptable to them, and the Copenhagen proposals would have directly impeded that growth. Their position was unsurprising: the failure of Western governments to take them seriously was very strange.
Environmental groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Greenpeace are wailing that Rio+20 has reversed the march to a global green economy. They brought it on themselves. WWF released an analysis that showed the world is consuming resources too quickly. Its solution? Cuts in production and consumption.
Given the struggle to restore growth in Europe, and the evident rejection of radical environmental strategies at Copenhagen, the lack of grasp of today’s reality was striking.
Yet the WWF and Greenpeace went on arguing that we had to switch to ecological economics and base economies on natural capital not real capital. Amazingly the European Commission supported this.
But other more critical players had different plans. As host of Rio+20, Brazil chaired and guided proceedings. It took control. With the assistance of the UN Secretariat, anxious to avoid a Copenhagen fiasco, it produced a consensus that artfully referred to all key interests, but reconfirmed as UN orthodoxy the common sense proposition that environmental protection must not be at the cost of growth and economic development. The NGOs are right that their ambitions were thwarted.
Meanwhile, at the G20 in Mexico, before Rio+20, there was no talk of building a global green economy. Its preoccupation was understandably with Europe’s economic crisis. David Cameron rightly emphasised that protectionism must be resisted.
It’s a good sign that the Brics brought the focus on how to address green issues back to reality at Rio+20. Given the increasingly important role these nations are playing in the global economy, we can expect a much more sensible international debate on the subject in the years ahead. The intellectual hegemony of maverick Western NGOs is well and truly over – and that is great news for jobs and growth.
Alan Oxley is chair of World Growth, a pro-development NGO. He is a former ambassador to, and chairman of, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt), the forerunner to the WTO.