Blog / 12 June 2012

Rio+20 lacks audacity

Rio+20 lacks audacity


Let's start with the host country, which is a huge contradiction in terms of sustainability: As one of the worlds' fastest growing economies, Brazil's growth is generated almost exclusively through an unprecedented exploitation of natural resources. Contrary to the political messages of its socialist government, the wealth generated by this resources exploitation is concentrating in the hands of a wealthy elite. While in the 70s and 80s Brazil reinvested in its own economy, nowadays the country generates little added value and seems to have returned to depending on primary commodities as the basis for its export and its growth.

Brazil organizing a sustainability conference is only one of the many contradictions we see in the world. Take for example fossil fuels; while there is no doubt that we have to reduce the use of oil, gas and coal, investments in fossil by all energy companies listed on stock exchanges soared in recent years. This increase is many times larger than the increase in investments in renewable energies. Meanwhile, if we were to burn all the existing reserves owned by these companies today, global temperature would already rise by 6 degrees. In a sustainable world, no more new reserves would be explored and the current worth of these companies would diminish drastically. But the contrary seems to happen; stock exchanges react enthusiastically to new reserves of oil and gas and many countries face conflicts over these 'precious' resources.

So will Rio's green economy help? No, it won't. Rio's green economy is about taking very small steps in the wrong direction. It is an economy that allows rich elites to take further control over natural resources through the creation of markets and international institutions to govern the euphemistically renamed "global public goods'. In that economy, the vast majority of people has no say whatsoever over its resources.

All those engaged in the Rio process must face the fact that they have a very perverse perception of risk. The real risks lie in continued investments in fossil fuels and unchecked exploitation of resources without any consideration of wealth distribution and investments in society. We are seriously risking democratic processes by creating new markets for CO2 and ecosystem services that disempower local stakeholders while diverting our attention away from the need to break with existing markets. Instead of investing in fossils, we desperately need investments in new initiatives for a sustainable economy, including agriculture and energy. They will generate returns without putting the global ecosystem in crisis and have the added advantage that they are about real people.

Those involved in Rio+20 all realize that that we face a serious crisis. Their challenge is to advocate for real change, for example in the way in which financial markets estimate risks and value their assets. I hope they will have the guts to break with current market thinking and to start investing in what really works.


See further:

Real numbers on investments in fossil fuels


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