Green Grabbing our Future at Rio+20

The "Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication" or the UN's Rio+20, started yesterday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This marks the 20th anniversary of Rio's first "Earth Summit,"in1992, as well as the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa. For two days Rio will host heads of state and high-level officials from 190 countries as they attempt to negotiate a global roadmap for sustainable development. Over 50,000 participants from the private sector and civil society are meeting in side events and parallel events in and near the conference.

In the shadow of the global economic crisis, this year's conference will focus on the "Green Economy." Enshrined in the 2011 United Nations Environment Program's report "Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication," the concept aims to usher in global economic growth by putting market values on environmental services and environmentally-friendly production and consumption.

This conference is a far cry from Rio's first Earth Summit 20 years ago. Then, world leaders produced the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), leading to the 1997 the Kyoto Protocol and Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), followed up with meetings of the Convention of the Parties (COP) and a comprehensive (non-binding) blueprint for action to combat poverty, curb unsustainable consumption, protect the atmosphere and end deforestation known as Agenda 21.

Rio+20's green privatization strategies will face the same environmental problems discussed two decades ago -- though many of them are now much worse. The solutions to these, and a whole host of new problems, have eluded world leaders for decades. The new environmentalist thinking seems to be that unless the world's biggest corporations -- and biggest polluters -- can be enticed into going green through the possibility of profits, the world is headed for disaster. While the Green Economy certainly has its bona fide believers, for some environmentalists, this is a last desperate effort to save the planet from the excesses of capitalism by mobilizing its most powerful institutions; the global oligopolies. For others, it is pouring fuel on the fire and risks causing a social, economic and environmental planetary meltdown.

The Rio process itself has been steadily privatized under the weight of 20 years of neoliberal globalization. As the global contradictions between economy and environment have intensified, nature itself is becoming a source of profit. What was once a state-oriented, regulatory framework has morphed into a market-based, corporate initiative. Convinced of the power of the global marketplace to conserve biodiversity, Rio+20's institutions are pushing the commercialization of ecosystem services through market mechanisms like markets for ecosystem services, carbon derivatives, and the 'sustainable' certification of forests, soybeans, palm oil and agrofuels. The corporate trend to privatize and commercialize ecosystem services and resources in the name of environmental protection is known as "green grabbing" as these schemes often result in local communities losing resource rights. It is the favored approach of the big conservation organizations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International (CI) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), who have thus guaranteed their place at the Rio+20 negotiating table alongside neoliberal governments and powerful multinational business interests.

Rather than a conference to reach agreement on the future of sustainable development, Rio +20 is shaping up to be another showdown on the global economy. The Conference's official working document, the Zero Draft was publicly disclosed in January of this year. However, the non-public Negotiation Document -- complete with the edits and an amendment attributed to specific countries -- was leaked to The Guardian newspaper on June 10th. While the governments of the world appear to be reaching a vaguely fragile agreement on the idea of a Green Economy in the Zero Draft, it is clear in the Negotiating Document that the G8, the G77 and China, the U.S. and the EU still disagree on how to implement it. Rather than cooperation, the Green Economy is unleashing fierce competition for the earth's land, water and biodiversity.

It is highly unlikely that Rio+20 will result in any binding agreements. Nonetheless, the final draft of "Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication" will serve as a political benchmark in the Rio process and -- if not drastically reformed -- as an environmental justification for the ongoing privatization of nature in the name of planetary survival. However, Rio+20 is far from reaching institutional and governmental consensus on the different mechanisms for dealing with climate change, and it is possible that disagreements over the developments of green markets could turn into political fractures across North-South and neoliberal-reformist divides. As the environmental and economic crises worsen -- and as social movements press their own demands -- these fractures will deepen.

Outside the official meetings, the People's Summit will be pressuring to replace the Green Economy discourse with pronouncements in favor of solidarity economies, food sovereignty and climate justice. They will also be working from the inside, attempting to sway reformist and progressive delegates way from false solutions. The fact that the proposals of civil society are so diametrically opposed to the official proposals of Rio+20 suggests that if the People's Summit is able to attract world attention, it will at the very least deeply call into question the neoliberal notion of the Green Economy. However, if the proposals from the Peoples Summit are able to penetrate the official conference and sway key players in the talks, the disagreements could become fractures, and fractures could lead to new, more progressive alliances.