Category Archives: policy

Rio + 20: Power of Informal Networks and Brazil’s place in the world

ImageRecently returned from Rio + 20,  I wanted to share my overall take on what was important about this mega-event.  In my view, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a historic, game-changing event whose importance will not be understood for many years to come. This is because the signficance of what happened in Rio de Janeiro from June 20-22 was diffuse, uncoordinated, distributed across multiple networks and hard to capture in any kind of zero-sum argument.

Two things stood out: Rio + 20 affirmed and strengthened the importance of informal networks and non-state actors for achieving momentum on sustainable development goals. The second was the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy – a team of 200 negotiators sewed up the final document before the conference opened – not just impressive, this achievement signalled something important about Brazil’s place in the world today.

ImageSide events were the main event
Media coverage in the immediate aftermath of Rio + 20 was mostly negative, and focused on the so-called “weakness” of the final document. This reflects a basic misunderstanding of what these conferences have become in recent years: big networking sessions where people involved in sustainable development pitch ideas and projects, and make commitments for the future.
That is to say, the main action was not in the plenary sessions with the heads of state, but rather in the plethora of side events.
The end result was hundreds of non-globally negotiated voluntary commitments. UN Secretary General for Rio + 20 Sha Zukang announced that governments, businesses, NGOs and inter-governmental agencies made commitments totaling $513 billion towards sustainable development.
Rio + 20 demonstrated, beyond any shadow of doubt, the capacity of corporations and grass-roots organizations to deliver concrete actions on sustainable development without any help from governments.
Dan Farber at Legal Planet “The Environmental Law and Policy Blog” noted, “These developments fit well with the theory of network governance.  The idea is that international cooperation does not simply involve formal treaties, but instead involves networks of officials at different levels of government, NGOs, and stakeholders.”

Informal networks are where the action is

“It does seem to be true that we are seeing the emergence of less-centralized forms of coordination with some resemblance to the decentralized global communication web. Especially since the formal process of international negotiation seems stalled right now, networks like these may be our best hope of progress on global issues,” he added.

Indeed, this echoes the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, who wrote in an op-ed shortly before her death on June 12, “Inaction in Rio would be disastrous – but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake. We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: The oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life to thrive.”

This message was echoed in a number of places in the week after Rio + 20.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on June 24, Jim Leape of WWF wrote:
“If you looked around in Rio last week, you saw where the action really is — local and national governments, companies, NGOs, labor unions finding ways to get on with it.
“Governments are coming together in regional initiatives to manage the resources they share. “

Commitments were plentiful and generous

One count showed a total of 600 commitments made at side events at Rio + 20.
These included:

*   Banks, investors, 57 countries, and companies like Wal-Mart agreed to include “natural capital” (and its depreciation) in their measures of wealth.
*   Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s initiative to push companies into reporting their environmental footprints.
*   Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s global reporting initiative to push companies into reporting environmental footprints.
*   The World Wildlife Fund said it had obtained pledges from twenty-six countries for an agreement to protect transnational water bodies.
*   Microsoft committed to roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. If it were a country, Microsoft would have the 51st largest GDP
*   A group of prominent development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world’s largest cities.
*   The U.S. EPA and the Brazilian Environment Ministry announced an online tool as part of the U.S.-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability that highlights key links between policies, funding and on-the-ground projects that can help drive urban sustainability investment around the world. The project is a result of a unique bilateral agreement between Presidents Obama and Rousseff and the cities of Philadelphia and Rio.
*   The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) joined six major organizations at Rio+20 to announce the Global Initiative on Urban Resilience (GIUR), an effort designed to spur building and infrastructure development, create new investment opportunities and foster community action around the world. Partner organizations include the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, ICLEI International, the World Bank, the Eye on Earth Summit, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Program on Energy, Resources, and the Environment and the Earth Council Alliance of Rio de Janeiro. The GIUR aims to create solutions by focusing on urban geographies, identifying the synergies between city governments, non-governmental organizations, financial institutions and different business sectors.

Green Economy Goes Mainstream
The mainstreaming of green economics may well turn out to be the big legacy of Rio + 20. UNEP was effective at putting Green Economy on the agenda, despite G77/China’s successful efforts on “green economy means different things to different countries” approach to the final text. Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said the final document produced at Rio + 20 is “a reflection of the global situation at a moment in which there is a global crisis and we have to act collectively. [But] the document itself is very rich in terms of actions, initiatives and programs.”
The Nature Conservancy, Corporate Eco Forum and 24 companies representing half a trillion dollars in annual revenue committed to a potentially game changing initiative around ecosystem valuation.

“A new generation of business and political leaders has started to connect company success with social and environmental issues that were previously the concern only of NGOs,” wrote John Vidal in the Guardian.

Fred Pearce wrote in Yale Environment 360 that: “… behind the scenes, something really interesting just may have happened in Rio.” Green economics, as represented in Rio, meant primarily introducing metrics about the use and abuse of nature and natural resources into corporate and national accounting. Once natural capital appears on balance sheets in the same way as man-made capital, then CEOs and policy makers will adopt greener ways, and environmental protection goes from being a cost to an investment.

On the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy, Nicolas Bourcier of Le Monde provides a good summary.

“Rio + 20 marked the end of a cycle. And the arrival of what one can call “a diplomacy of prosperity”, cherished by the strongmen of Brasilia. A world where south-south relations often have a more decisive dimension than north-south relations.”

He goes further to say that Rio + 20 didn’t just affirm Brazil’s position as a leader of the south; but also that the US was tacitly supportive of their position, judging from the self-effacing and moderate tone the US delegation struck at the conference.

My feeling from the outset, before the conference even began, was that this show belonged to the BRICs and that Obama/Cameron/Merkel’s no-show was at most a minor distraction. In the weeks before Rio + 20, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ambassador Patriota – who is taking Chinese lessons – ran an op-ed in the China Daily to say that green economy means different things to different countries. The message was clear – Brazil had aligned with China on this key issue of the final document, source of much disappointment to those who had pinned their hopes on “The Future We Want”.

Anecdotally, Rio de Janeiro during the conference was staggering beautiful and contrary to dire predictions that we would be stuck in traffic gridlock for 3 days, the buses ran regularly and on time, security was abundant but not stifling, every Brazilian I came in contact with went out of their way, and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we were welcome and that things ran smoothly. They were, quite simply, outstanding hosts.

I’ve seen the future, and it belongs to Brazil.



France and the nuclear lobby: public opinion will shift soon

The nuclear cloud was scheduled to arrive in France on Wednesday or Thursday, so those of us who aren’t convinced by the Heidi-esque declarations in the mainstream press telling us that there is no public health risk have to dig as best we can to try and figure out what we can/should be doing.

I’m following the evolution of public opinion with great interest and so far we don’t have much hard evidence that there’s an important shift underway. However, anecdotally I can report that the sentiment is not as rock solid as EDF, Areva, the nuclear lobby and the French government would like it to be. Stores of various types of “soft” remedies such as organic miso paste, seawater supplements and clay powder are moving quickly through the organic co-ops and stores in Paris, and Les Echos reported that geiga counters sold out in Paris earlier this week (source Les Echos on Twitter).

Don’t forget that France is a country:

* where over 75% of electricity comes from nuclear energy.
* which is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity (generates more than 3 billion euros/year in revenue)
•    for whom nuclear reactors and fuel products and services provide significant export revenue
* which is building its first Generation III reactor and planning a second.
* where 17% of electricity comes from recycled nuclear fuel.

A poll (March 15-16), commissioned by EDF and conducted by TNS Sofres, showed that only 42 percent of the French favoured an end to nuclear, but that 68% believed that a similar accident to Fukushima could happen in France.
Another poll (March 15-17) by IFOP for the Green Party Europe Ecologie Les Verts showed that 70% favoured an end to France’s nuclear program, with 19% in favour of an immediate halt, and 51% for a gradual phase-out over 25/30 years. Only 30 percent of those surveyed favoured continuing the nuclear program and building new power plants.

That was before the cloud arrived in France, before people started to worry about which vegetables they should stop eating (lettuce and mushrooms, for instance), and before reports suggesting that the nuclear reactor core may have breached at Fukushima.

Politicians have been conservative and relatively mealy-mouthed, no doubt keeping a close watch on the opinion polls as a presidential election is coming in 2012.  François Hollande, a Socialist presidentiable, has not said a word. Former PM Dominique de Villepin has called for a Grenelle on energy, and “possibly” a referendum (how brave!). Martin Aubry, head of the Socialist Party, said France should “move towards an exit from nuclear in the next 20-30 years.”

For objective information, the only source is the CRIRAD.

And everyone should read this post by Dmitry Orlov, and learn the difference between radiation and radioactivity.

French Ecology Ministry downsized and downgraded in reshuffle

Last month’s cabinet reshuffle left the Ecology Ministry – the former jewel in Sarkozy’s crown of 2007  – shrunken and downgraded. Jean Louis Borloo has been replaced by Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet as Minister, with a smaller title (Energy and the Sea have been moved elsewhere), and ranking in the government downgraded from number 2 to number 4. Borloo was Minister of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and Sea, and Kosciusko-Morizet is now Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development, Transportation and Housing.

Adding insult to injury, President Nicolas Sarkozy has betrayed a key promise of the 2007 Grenelle – that the Ecology Minister would be ranked Number 2 in the government. It is now ranked number 4, behind Defence and Economy and Finance. Energy has gone to the Ministry of Finance.

Friends of the Earth warned that the shift of Energy to the Finance Ministry presages the return to a policy of favouring more nuclear and fossil energy production, thereby satisfying the big corporate lobbies at the expense of the interest of citizens.

France dumps the carbon tax – death knell for Grenelle?

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, from the barricades of 1968 to 2010 - the only Green left standing in France

Sputtering signs of economic recovery in France have coincided with a big political defeat at the regional polls last month for the right-wing UMP majority and President Nicholas Sarkozy. One of the first things Sarkozy did in the aftermath of the elections was to dump the carbon tax. NGO’s were the first to declare that this meant the death of the Grenelle de l’Environnement. Getting rid of the carbon tax was Sarkozy’s concession to his right-wing base, who had been progressively alienated in the past 2 years by his government’s overtures to the socialist left. Nicholas Hulot, a TV presenter and very popular environmental advocate, denounced the move as a step backwards by the political class. His Fondation Hulot said that it would suspend its participation in the working groups led by the government for the Grenelle – both for the environment and for the Oceans.

France’s Junior Ecology Minister Chantal Jouanno joined the chorus of disapproval.
“I am in despair over this step back, in despair that eco-scepticism has defeated it,” she said, adding: “I am not onside with this decision.”

“It was possible to have done it in France before doing it in Europe,” she said. “It was what we had thought from the beginning; it was what other countries like Sweden have done.”

There are other signs that the societal consensus sealed in 2007 over the urgency to move to a more sustainable mode of economic activity and governance is eroding. My feeling at this point is: Sarkozy did this because he believes he can get away with it, politically. In March, a GM potato called Amflora, was authorized by the European Commission. This is the first GM crop to be authorized in Europe since 1998. A global conference in Doha, Qatar in March overturned a European Commission ruling to ban fishing for bluefin tuna. Sure, NGO’s issued protest statements, but somehow their response has been underwhelming.

But was the Grenelle – which inspired Sarkozy to declare that he would make France a world leader on the environment – ever more than just a process?
The process – which in itself was innovative and ground-breaking at the time – involved being inclusive with all stakeholders, and bringing them together around a round-table to make decisions collectively. The substance of most of the decisions was already written into European legislation, and the subtlety of French political action consists in seeking – or at least appearing to seek – at every turn to enact legislation and/or standards that are more ambitious than what the EU prescribes.

After Copenhagen – the view from France

Not a pretty sight. Nicholas Sarkozy has been roundly criticized for putting national interests above those of Europe (he spearheaded a failed bid – along with Brazil – to challenge China’s leadership of African nations), and Le Monde ran a blunt article today saying that Europe basically sat on its hands at Copenhagen and let China and the U.S. call the shots. “Europe, lacking dynamism and vision, did not dare to push them (China and U.S.). Despite the fact that it has the most coherent climate policy, that it has pursued tough climate negotiations for 20 odd years… it abandoned the field.

…Angela Merkel was preoccupied with elections, Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Tusk (Poland) were indifferent or hostile, Jose Manuel Barroso focused on the renewal of his mandate, while France and the U.K. were working unilaterally. On the French side, Jean-Louis Borloo travelled the globe armed with generous ideas, but failed to work on European coordination. Sweden and Denmark prepared for the conference almost as lone rangers.”

Anger at China for sabotaging the process is widespread; and Corinne Lepage (European MP) outlines her version of the fiasco in Copenhagen here as well as in a long video on Terre TV. She lists the culprits: climate sceptics, OPEC states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, China and the U.S., and blames all of them for instrumentalizing the climate cause towards narrowly national and economic ends.

Knives are out for the UN. The official French position favours a new international body with greater authority that deals only with climate change. Daniel Cohn-Bendit (European MP for the Europe Ecology party) wants a “Security Council on Climate” with 20 member states including a majority whose future existence is directly threatened by climate change.

The Cuban model of sustainability

The current round of global soul-searching about our blighted system of economic organization has led to an upsurge of activity in the field of alternative metrics. In France, on Sept 14, Nicholas Sarkozy unveiled the findings of a commission he appointed last year to study new, alternative measurements of social progress in a bid to move beyond GDP. Results of the findings are available here. The application of the findings will inevitably be political and self-serving, but the questions economists and statisticians are asking are vital to policy-making and the kinds of political choices we as citizens make in the coming years.

Joseph Stiglitz wants governments to move beyond GDP fetishism

Joseph Stiglitz wants governments to move beyond "GDP fetishism"

For many years, researchers have been vexed by the paradox that rising incomes do not make people happier in the long run. A recent book, “The Spirit Level – Why more equal societies almost always do better“, documents the timely and provocative thesis that all social evils stem from inequality rather than differences in material living standards. They ask the million dollar question: Is sustainability compatible with retaining our quality of life? In response, they single out a study from the 2006 WWF Living Planet Report which analysed data relating the quality of life in each country to the size of the ecological footprint per head of population. Quality of life was measured using the UN Human Development Index (HDI) which combines life expectancy, education and GDP per capita. Guess what? Only one country was able to combine a quality of life above the WWF threshold of 0.8 on the HDI with an ecological footprint which is globally sustainable. It was Cuba. Despite its much lower income levels, its life expectancy and infant mortality rates are almost identical to those in the U.S.

Cuba - La Havana, from Rudi Heim

Cuba - La Havana, from Rudi Heim

Thought for the day: “There is nothing in the world more favourable to genius than leisurely poverty” Miguel de Unamuno.

French panel urges carbon tax

A French government panel has recommended the imposition of a carbon tax on transport and heating fuel as soon as 2010. The panel, headed by former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, recommended last month that the tax be imposed on all citizens “without exception and exemption”. A commitment to the carbon tax was one of the victories of the 2007 Grenelle on the Environment; however it has already generated an outcry from trade unions and consumer associations.
Under the recommendations, France would bill 32 euros for every tonne of carbon dioxide emitted in 2010, rising to 100 euros per tonne in 2030. This compares with the current 14 euros per ton on the European carbon emissions market. In practice the levy would add 7 centimes extra per litre of petrol, and represent an increase in 10%-15% in heating costs for households. According to the Ademe, the carbon tax would generate an extra charge of 160 euros per household per year.

Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands and Britain have already adopted similar measures. In Sweden, a carbon tax was introduced in 1991 and the price of carbon currently stands at 97 euros per ton. The proposed French carbon tax would generate an estimated 8 billion euros in government revenue per year, some of which would be used to offset the price rises for the most vulnerable French households and businesses.

The French climate contribution is separate from a proposal floated by President Nicholas Sarkozy in March for a carbon tax on imports from countries which have lower environmental standards than France.

via Les Echos and Mediapart

New EU law on organic agriculture is a step backwards for France

France will lose its familiar green Agriculture Biologique (AB) label next year. New rules came into effect on Jan 1, 2009 aimed at harmonizing standards among the 27 European Union nations on organic agriculture. While the text seeks to simplify and impose common standards, the net effect for countries like France is to considerably lower the barrier for organic agriculture. According to a poll conducted by the CSA/Agence Bio in 2008, 85 percent of French people know the AB label and use it as a reference for consumer decisions.

Under the EU law, national labels will disappear in July 2010 to be replaced by a mandatory European logo, which is currently the object of a contest open to EU art or design students.

On the positive side, new products like wine, plants, seeds, yeast and aquaculture will be classified under the new label. The new legislation upholds the fundamental principles of organic agriculture: ie a ban on the use of chemical pesticides, respect for animal welfare, a ban on the deliberate introduction of GM crops.

However, a doorway has been opened to accidental GM contamination from neighbouring fields, on the condition that the traces of GM crops are less than 0.9 % of the total weight of the product. Furthermore, contrary to previous French legislation, pig and poultry farmers no longer have to produce at least 40 percent of their animal feed on site. Finally, the new legislation has fewer restrictions on antibiotic treatments (three annual treatments are now permitted. Poultry can now be sold at 70 days compared with the former minimum of 81 days and anti-parasite treatments are now allowed.

French organic producers, for their part, intend to roll out their own, more demanding set of criteria starting from January 2010 in order to maintain their high standards. Standards aside, it is worth noting that France – Europe’s top pesticide user – is a big laggard when it comes to organic agriculture in terms of surface area planted. Only 2 percent of land in France is farmed organically, compared with the European average of 4-5 percent. Best performers among the 27 are Austria (13 percent), Estonia, Latvia and Italy (9 percent) and Greece (8 percent).

French food safety agency rules that GM corn is safe

The French food safety agency, AFSSA, has ruled that MON 810 corn – transgenic corn manfactured by Monsanto – does not constitute a health risk. The ruling, dated Jan 23 but kept secret until an exclusive in today’s Le Figaro, is a political time bomb for the government, already snowed under with strike action from teachers, recession and unemployment woes. Not only does the ruling run counter to the government’s decision to ban MON 810 last year, it also flied in the face of the overwhelming opposition to transgenic crops among the general population

The decision basically throws out all the questions raised against MON 810, whether they pertain to animal health or human health. These included the toxicity of the insecticidal protein (Cry1Ab) which protects the GM corn from pests such as the borer, a possible link with mad cow disease, or the possible carcinogenic potential.

Environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo will have the thankless task of defending the government’s position before the European Commission later this month, for the ban is only defensible if there is clear scientific evidence to back it up.

Furthermore, the AFSSA’s ruling is in line with the findings published on 31 October by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Austria has been inconflict for the past 10 years with the European executive to prevent the import and sale of GMOs on its territory.

What’s left of the Grenelle?

Eighteen months after the Grenelle de l’Environnement, it’s worth taking a look at what’s left of the promises made by President Sarkozy and Jean-Louis Borloo in October 2007. At the time, the meeting was welcomed as innovative and participatory because it brought NGOs into the decision-making process.
Since then those same NGOs have been criticized for their endorsement of a process which has been battered, diluted and edited beyond recognition.

Grenelle I, a broad, big picture text which lays the groundwork for the major reforms envisaged in the Grenelle, was voted in unanimously in October 2008 and appeared to signal a new consensus on the environment among the mainly right-wing deputies. But NGOs were quick to point out that a lot had been sacrificed: the pledge to end the “all-road” era is gone; energy descent targets have been watered down; environmental health has been almost entirely abandoned, the nuclear lobby has been strengthened and it is now impossible to ban a dangerous substance if it is allowed by the European Union.

Grenelle II, which will get a first hearing in parliament in the early months of 2009, will present more challenges to as it is not just more controversial, but also highly technical, and lays out – sector by sector- the major reforms to be implemented in a range of areas from urban planning, construction to carbon capture and biodiversity.

The main axes are:
• Construction – improving energy performance of existing buildings
• Urban planning – compete overhaul to take into account new energy/climate targets
• Transport – series of incentives to boost public transportation use
• Energy – mandatory carbon audit for towns with more than 50,000 residents and companies with more than 500 employees
• Ban on advertising of pesticides to individuals; of cellphones for under-12’s; obligatory labeling of phones and wireless boxes to indicate strength of electromagnetic charge; nanoparticles; biodiversity corridors

Disappointment among the Greens, the left and the NGOs can be summed up by this commentary which ran in December’s issue of La Décroissance: “Elimination of the anti-nuclear movement and political ecology, assertion of the primacy of sustainable development and green capitalism, relaunch of car sales and economic growth, skyscraper construction: this was the deal that the Grenelle participants took part in.”