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Massive 20th anniversary of Earth Summit struggles to find its meaning

Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and then Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney chat following Mulroney's speech at the Earth Summit in Rio on June 12, 1992 in Rio, Brazil. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ron Poling

OTTAWA - As anniversary bashes go, Rio+20 is set to be a dour affair.

Twenty years ago, the United Nations held its ground-breaking Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro — led by prominent Canadian Maurice Strong, bolstered by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney, and setting out a path for concrete action and billions in investment to protect the environment.

This week, as Environment Minister Peter Kent heads to Brazil to join tens of thousands of delegates in an effort to push sustainable development, the overriding sentiment is grim.

Even as the effects of global warming stare delegations in the face, they are struggling to deliver anything but a process, or a promise to talk more later.

"To be honest, we aren't expecting a great deal out of this conference," Kent said in an interview with The Canadian Press before leaving for Rio.

He said Canada and its allies are pushing for "realistic and pragmatic" outcomes, but instead see their negotiators bogged down in an unwieldy text that can't even succinctly define "green economy" or "sustainable development."

"I think it's fair to say, Canada has been disappointed with the limited process," the minister said, adding that he hopes the Brazilian host can pull countries together in the final days of the conference later this week.

It's too easy, Kent said, for countries to adopt catchphrases at a conference that in the light of the day either mean very little, or have unintended consequences on domestic policy.

"We're really just at a beginning point here."

Kent is Canada's only federal minister attending, although he said Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger are also travelling to Brazil. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leading the American delegation, and the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, will also be in Rio.

The federal NDP is sending its deputy environment critic, Anne Minh Thu Quach — although she is not part of the official delegation.

Many heads of state will be attending the G20 summit in Mexico instead, and most Canadian environmental groups are staying home.

Still, there is growing pressure — both from the governments involved and the many activists and non-governmental organizations keeping a close eye on the talks — to come up with something that would show some kind of collective resolve to deal with global warming, pollution, and poverty.

"We are concerned. This is next week and there isn't a clear consensus around an ambitious agenda," said Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada.

"We just aren't seeing people arriving in the frame of mind to make significant progress towards significant commitments. And we clearly need that."

It's not just the Canadian contingent that is down in the dumps about the mega-meeting. Negotiators have been working full out for months in an attempt to deliver concrete outcomes, but even the conference organizers have spoken out loud about the possibility of failure.

The aim is create political momentum for a green economy around the world — an economy that does not destroy the environment, but also alleviates poverty and inequality.

Organizers received submissions from 600 different countries, organizations and networks, and have boiled the suggestions down to 97 different items to be negotiated.

At a concrete level, however, delegates are now focused on agreeing on two issues: how to beef up the United Nations structure so that sustainable development is front and centre; and how to define a global set of sustainable development goals that will orient decision-making for years to come.

The sustainable development goals — "SDGs," in summit lingo — would replace the current set of millenium development goals that have guided global development talks for the past decade, but are set to expire in 2015.

Canada does not want to set up a new UN body, said Kent, but he does want the UN to be more coherent in the way in handles sustainable development.

On the SDGs, Kent said he wants to see a process that would define what the goals should be, a framework for timelines, and a way to figure out whether countries are meeting their goals.

But the talks must not bog down over money, he added. Developing countries have frequently argued that they can't meet international obligations on poverty reduction, greenhouse gas emissions or green economics unless there is substantial aid to pave the way.

That's a discussion for another day — a day when the global economy is on a far more stable footing, Kent said.

His stand is controversial among developing countries, and has already earned Canada a "fossil" award from environmental activists for obstructing progress.

Given the procedural nature of the talks, many countries and non-governmental organizations alike are selecting narrow topics that they hope can make some progress through the morass.

Kent will be touting his government's creation of national marine parks and pushing corporate social responsibility.

He will also be highlighting that he has changed his position on the right to water, and now agrees that people around the world should indeed all have access to safe, clean water — as long as that right does not involve bulk water exports or any obligations for funding.

Oxfam wants to see a commitment to sustainable food production — an initiative Fox believes Canada could easily agree to and promote.

International activist group Greenpeace is going to be targeting protection of the Arctic, asking the United Nations to create a santuary around the North Pole.

Despite the disparate agendas and unwieldy communique, neither Kent nor the environmentalists have given up hope that the meeting, in the end, will be productive.

With 130 delegations in one spot, the end result is unpredictable, said Sidney Riboux of Equiterre.

"They don't want to meet, and come out with nothing, and leave empty-handed."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2012
The Canadian Press

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