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Rio+20=0?

22 June 2012

Click to find out more about OECD work of relevance to Rio+20

Today we publish the third in a series of articles on the OECD’s contribution to the  RIO+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development

Many politicians “cannot resist the power of the Invisible Demons, because they Secretly Serve the Invisible Demons”, according to one comment on the Rio+20 outcome document on the blog of Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International. I had a more lurid image of Satan and his minions, but it’s true that an eternity spent affirming, acknowledging, underscoring, stressing, recognising and recalling the need for holistic and integrated approaches to this and that would qualify as a reasonable definition of Hell in most religions.  And speaking of definitions, Greenpeace’s political director Daniel Mittler described Rio+20 as an “epic failure … developed countries have given us a new definition of hypocrisy”. Other civil society organisations agree, including Oxfam, WWF, and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

How about the OECD? The document you can click on at the top of this article opens with a message from OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría saying that 20 years on from Rio 1992, sustainable development  remains a powerful message but it still isn’t a reality. It’s unlikely to become a reality unless we start changing what can be changed now, but as Gurría points out,  “even the best policies are nothing without the political will to implement them”.

It’s not that the political will for change doesn’t exist. On the contrary, governments are always looking for new ways to develop the economy, but what we’ve seen since Rio 1992 is that economic growth on its own isn’t enough to address problems such as inequality, and it can even make environmental and other problems worse. And as we saw with Rio+20, countries at different stages of development and with different natural resources do not share a common view as to what the best policies are, even when they agree on the scale and causes of environmental degradation and climate change.

There’s also a problem of time scales and a related one of habit. It’s a bit like the character played by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s 8½ (or 8.5 as the OECD Style Guide would have it). Somebody tells him about this great method to quit smoking in a fortnight. “It’s taken me 40 years to get up to two packets a day,” he replies, “So why do you think I’d want to quit in two weeks?” Our current model of economic growth has brought enormous progress to billions of people, and we’re hooked, even though the costs keep growing. Today’s technologies and ways of doing things will be expensive and difficult to replace, and many of the benefits may not appear for some time, or be so diffuse that the impact on individual people (or businesses) may not be very noticeable. The effects of the crisis and anything that would slow growth are, however, immediate.

The OECD proposes green growth as a way to meet the challenges. A report prepared with the World Bank and UN for the G20 summit that preceded RIO+20 starts from the fact that structural reform agendas exist already, so green growth and sustainable development policies could be incorporated into them. The main elements of a “green” policy package are those of any structural reform – investment, tax, regulation, innovation and so on, but the report is accompanied by a toolkit of policy for different national situations. For example in many OECD countries, the main energy issue may be reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whereas in a developing country, access to electricity supplies may be the priority.

The report provides a good overview of the main questions, but even if you’re familiar with the subject, take a look at the last section on the strengths, weaknesses and conditions for using the various market-based policies and non market-based policies, for example if you want to compare taxes on pollution with stricter technology standards.

Finally, what do you think Rio+40 will be? A shout of triumph or a cry of despair?

Useful links

OECD’s contribution to Rio+20

OECD work on green growth

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