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Rio+20: The Future They Want

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5 July, 2012Rio+20 fails to be the world's promised "once in a generation opportunity" to address poverty and environmental degradation.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (popularly referred to as Rio+20), which took place 20 to 22 June 2012, was meant to be a turning-point in the world's efforts to address poverty and environmental degradation. At the start of the Rio+20 exercise, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon characterized it as a once in a generation opportunity. If that is so, then Rio+20 must be considered a failure, because this once in a generation opportunity has been mostly wasted repeating platitudes and warming-over commitments already made.

How did The Future We Want (the hopeful title of the Rio+20 outcome document) become The Future They Want?

Confusion surrounds the document, with its many nice  words. The United Nations and many governments hail it as a success, as does most of the corporate media.

To understand it, however, one must understand what is missing from the document. The nice  words have no force behind them. There are almost no commitments to concrete, trackable action. No funds have been allocated. No ambitious targets, no imaginative re-thinking of current patterns of production and consumption appear in it. The words “green economy” appear in the text, but are devoid of meaning: no coherent industrial strategy or policy can be derived from it; and the document is silent on reforming international finance, or imposing even a small tax on international financial transactions.

Wherever the document comes close to saying something positive, the statement is couched in so many qualifying words, and reminders that individual nations are free to do whatever they wish, that it is impossible to consider it a road-map to global sustainability.

A reader of the document would gather the impression that:

  •  short-term economic growth trumps sustainability,
  •  the private sector is preferable to the public sector,
  •  free market solutions, and international financiers and their institutions, are trustworthy,
  •  trade deals trump environmental protection treaties,
  •  regulation is generally unnecessary,
  •  green economic policies, and Just Transition plans, are optional, and
  •  national sovereignty trumps global solutions (pollution and climate change respect national boundaries).

Indeed, parts of the document read like an investment prospectus for environmental services, rather than an international agreement to save the planet.

To be fair, some good things appear in the Rio+20 conclusions. There is recognition of the problem of youth unemployment, decent work, women and sexual health issues (although a strong reference to women's reproductive rights mysteriously disappeared from the document at the last minute). There is recognition of the need for better data and science. Thanks to the hard work of trade union delegates, the roles of workers and trade unions, and the importance of job creation linked to forward-looking macroeconomic policies that promote sustainable industrial development, are mentioned; as are skills development and a Just Transition - however, in almost the same breath, the benefits of private investment are touted. 

It is also worth noting that the role of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will be continued and strengthened. There are some commitments to fight desertification (most referring to previously-signed treaties) and some new commitments are made on the right to safe drinking water and to better protect the world's oceans (but significantly weaker than the protections first proposed). Unfortunately, none of this is written in the kind of language that would give it any force.

National leaders and their senior ministers must bear the blame for this fiasco. The United Nations is only as effective as its member states – particularly its most powerful member states – allow it to be. This points out the crisis in international governance and the need to rebuild it.

If winners and losers can be identified, then the biggest winners are the criminal bankers, the same people that drove the world's economy over a cliff in 2008 and continue to prevent its recovery. These are people who produce nothing tangible, but make billions for themselves playing computer games with numbers on spreadsheets that may have once represented something real. They are used to thinking of currency, stocks and bonds, or derivative trading in terms of fractions of seconds. For them, a few hours constitute a long-term plan. The mainstream media refer to them as investors, but this is false: they are speculators who, when they lose a bet, turn to the public purse to bail them out. They believe they deserve obscene wealth, and that they owe nothing to anyone, not even their own children. They will tolerate no interference in their global casino. Far from proposing a financial transactions tax, the Rio+20 conclusions instead urge states “to refrain from promulgating and applying any unilateral economic, financial or trade measures ...”

Winners, too, are the militarists by virtue of the complete absence of any mention of global military spending, or the environmental and sustainability effects of war.

The losers are the planet's peoples, most particularly those in developing countries, and all of the species and spaces most at risk.

As Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) said,

“Words are not enough; a UN process with no targets, no time-lines and no serious inclusion of unions and civil society does nothing to fuel the anxiety of people suffering from unemployment, from poverty or from environmental destruction of their lands and/or livelihoods.”

Our leaders seem to have forgotten an important reality. There is nothing about so-called free enterprise that would ensure the protection of the environment, a long-term industrial strategy, a Just Transition, peace, human rights, or social protection.

Jyrki Raina, General Secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, stated,

“It is the role of governments to represent the real needs of their citizens and to ensure the common good; and it is up to trade unionists to remain mobilized to remind them of that duty. A sustainable industrial strategy is no longer just a good idea, it is becoming a matter of survival.”