Linda McAvan MEP: The road to Rio – what can the European Union bring to the table?

As Rio+20 closes, the next essay from our new pamphlet by leading Labour politicians on sustainable development is by Linda McAvan MEP, considering the European dimension to the issues. 

At the Rio+20 Summit, as at most major international negotiations, the UK will be attending not as an individual country, but as part of the European Union (EU) delegation. The 27 EU Member States have submitted a joint position to the UN which has been negotiated over several meetings of Europe’s Environment Ministers and endorsed at the recent EU Summit of Heads of State. This determination to act together and present a clear, common purpose reflects a determination to learn lessons from the EU’s experience at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit. On that occasion, the EU’s failure to speak with one voice as different Heads of State attempted to upstage each other led to the EU being sidelined in the final hours of negotiation – despite it being the most prepared delegation at the talks.

The main aim of the EU in Rio will be to get some tangible outcomes. While recognizing that there is little appetite among its global partners for a binding legal outcome along the lines of the 1992 Earth Summit which launched binding UN conventions on biodiversity, climate change and desertification, the EU is pushing for some kind of targets to be set out in the final text. In its submission to the latest preliminary talks in New York, the EU proposed an amendment to the draft UN text as follows: “As a tool to trigger the start of a profound, world-wide just transition towards a sustainable future, we agree to establish a global green economy roadmap, with deadlines for specific goals, objectives and concrete actions at the international level in a specific number of crosscutting and thematic areas”. Sensitive to resistance from its partners about any mention of legally binding engagements, the EU calls its targets “aspirational”. Labour and its sister parties in the European Parliament’s Social and Democratic Group support these targets because we feel that unless there are some common yardsticks, it will be impossible to measure and compare progress across the world. Worth noting is that consistent with their climate sceptic position, Tory MEPs voted against the European Parliament’s joint resolution on Rio+20, leaving them isolated once again from the political mainstream, voting with UKIP, the BNP and other fringe European parties including Le Pen’s National Front.

So what are those “concrete actions” and “goals” that the EU wants world leaders to agree? The targets fall under five categories: water, oceans and the marine environment, sustainable land management and ecosystems, sustainable energy and resource efficiency, in particular waste. Under each heading, the EU negotiating team is working on an overarching goal and concrete targets.

Water: noting that water scarcity is a key problem and that there could be a potential global water gap of 40% by 2030, the goal is to ensure universal access to drinking water and sanitation and sustainable water use through integrated water resource management and increased resource efficiency. Four targets are proposed, all for 2030, to meet this goal.

Oceans and marine environment: irresponsible exploitation of our marine environment is at the root cause of the degradation of our marine environment and depletion of fish stocks – the the EU itself being a main culprit, something we hope to fix through reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Three targets are proposed: by 2020 to restore marine habitats and eliminate illegal fishing and by 2025 to halve the levels of marine litter compared with 2012.

Sustainable land management and ecosystems: the goal here relates to achieving already recognised global standards for land management. Five targets are proposed: to set a timeframe for halting land and soil degradation, three targets for 2020 including halting loss of biodiversity, investment in sustainable agriculture and agrifood chains and increasing access of smallhold farmers, particularly women to best practice training and by 2030 to increase global, sustainable agricultural productivity with specific regional targets.

Sustainable energy: noting that access to energy is vital for human needs and that 80% of people without electricity live in SubSaharan Africa and South Asia, the goal is by 2030 to provide sustainable energy for all. There are three targets, all for 2030: achieve universal access, double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and double the share of renewable energy in the global mix.

Resource efficiency, in particular waste: noting that raw materials and natural resources will become more scarce as the world’s population grows and demand increases from the emerging economies, the goal is for sustainable management of all resources and to decouple economic growth from resource use. Four targets are set: to improve resource productivity by an agreed measurable indicator, by 2030 to reduce waste to landfill and improve recycling and reuse, by 2030 to halve the amount of edible food waste and by 2020 to ensure full lifecycle management of chemicals.

Absent from the EU’s targets – and something which has not gone unremarked – are wider measures of sustainable development. While the EU’s over-riding goals include language about the “just transition”, all the emphasis is on the “green economy”. But as the Brussels Head of the UN Development Programme reminded us recently “Rio is not an environment conference, it’s not a conference to save nature. It’s a conference to save human beings, it’s a conference that has to combine the most pressing challenges of our times – equity and sustainability – and the one cannot be sacrificed for the other.”

Given the predominantly rightwing make up of the current crop of EU leaders and MEPs, it should not surprise us that European negotiators are dodging issues about equity at a time when austerity is pushing more and more EU citizens onto the dole queues, squeezing the living standards of ordinary citizens and when little is being done to narrow the gap in many countries between the rich and poor. But as the momentum at the Rio+20 talks for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) grows, the EU does now recognise that broader measures, including SDGs must be part of the picture. There is also growing interest in the “Beyond GDP” debate and the development of alternative measures of wellbeing.

The EU has, since 2001, carried out a two-yearly assessment of its own progress on sustainable development based around 11 headline indicators which go well beyond environmental measures. According to data from Eurostat, the EU statistical office, to date, progress has been made in three key areas: reducing the number of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion, cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and an increased share of renewable energy. But the overall results are mixed – and should carry a health warning since they predate for the most part the Eurozone crisis and the huge rises in unemployment and the collapse of living standards across many countries.

Whether the EU can convince its partners on its negotiating position remains to be seen. Many emerging economies countries remain sceptical about the green economy agenda, fearful that it is really cover for protectionist measures by the West to put a brake on their economic development. And some of the poorest developing countries seem weary of yet more global talks when almost all the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) are off track in Sub Saharan Africa and a number of EU Member State including France and Italy are not on target to meet their Official Development Aid pledge to give 0.7% GNI by 2015.

But compared with other major economies, the EU can come to the table with a reasonable track record on the environment, social protection (though right wing governments – foremost of which is, of course, the UK Coalition – are threatening this) and climate change.

Yet it seems to me that the real threat to success at Rio is the lack of political momentum. If we contrast the run-up to Rio with the weeks and months leading up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, the contrast could not be more different. During that time, as politicians we were inundated with letters from constituents, trade unions, green groups, church groups, school children urging us to take urgent action to save the planet, to be bold. There was intense lobbying from business, some keen to be seen as on the “green side”, others desperate to block progress. But to date, on Rio there is only a trickle of interest. Some argue that this is not a problem. For all the fanfare at Copenhagen, in terms of getting a binding global agreement to tackle climate change, the talks failed. Maybe a quieter form of international diplomacy may lead to more concrete results. Let us hope so. With current predictions that the world population will grow from 7 billion now to 9 billion by 2050 with all that means in terms of increasing pressure on the planet’s resources, if we wait for Rio+40 to sort it out, we just might find it is too late.

Linda McAvan MEP is Labour and Socialist Group spokesperson on climate change and environment in the European Parliament.

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