I think I may have used this subject line before, but in the wake of the Rio+20 conference, it’s still relevant — perhaps even more so.
I guess what’s most surprising about Rio, or any big governmental environmental conference in recent years, is that people are surprised or disappointed when the event comes to an end without any dramatic leap forward in efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. It is 15 years since the Kyoto Protocol was signed at a UN conference on climate change, committing 84 countries to reducing their greenhouse emissions by about 5.2 percent relative to 1990 levels by this year.
Kyoto was obviously an outlier — the U.S. never signed the protocol — and everyone seems firmly determined that it won’t happen again, as each successive conference has ended with politics overwhelming urgency and science.
The Rio conference’s ending document, called “The Future We Want” is 53 pages of statements in which the participants commit themselves to reaffirming, considering, stressing, emphasizing, noting and underscoring things that sound very nice and are generally noncontroversial — like ending poverty – without having to actually do anything.
Take statement 222 on page 42 of the document.
We recognize that the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances is resulting in a rapid increase in the use and release of high global-warming potential hydrofluorocarbons to the environment. We support a gradual phase-down in the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons.
Not exactly a stirring call to action, with a strong implementation plan, benchmarks and deadlines.
Environmental groups and officials hoping to put a positive spin on all this have pointed to the $513 billion in voluntary commitments individual countries, corporations and business and nonprofit groups made during the conference. For example, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has committed $8 billion — yes, that’s billion with a b — for energy efficiency projects in Eastern Europe and Central Asia between now and 2015.
On the other hand, the U.S. State Department, U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation and U.S. Trade and Development Agency have come up with a pledge of $20 million, subject to congressional approval, to provide support for developers working on clean energy projects in Africa and are eligible for OPIC funding. The money will be used to provide relatively small grants to help the developers get their projects to the point where they can get OPIC funds.
It’s the subject to congressional approval that is the red flag. I’m sure no developer is going to count on this money actually coming through any time soon, if ever.
To provide some transparency and public accountability, the National Resources Defense Council has launched a new website called Cloud of Commitments to document and track all the commitments made at the conference.
In the end what Rio+20 underlines, reaffirms and emphasizes is that any comprehesive, concerted global action to curb carbon emissions and slow climate change — we can’t stop it, it’s already here — is about as likely as Congress passing a comprehensive national energy policy or rolling back federal tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuels.
The way forward is for smaller, local actions that will build momentum and perhaps eventually compel larger policy changes.
Which brings me to Part 2 — check back here in the next day or two — for an upate on California’s efforts to develop community solar projects which provide true distributed generation.