Society

URBAN HIPPIE: Carleton U political science prof dishes on what really went down at the Rio+20 conference

Carleton U. professor James Meadowcroft on what was accomplished — or not — at the Rio+20 environment summit

By Jen Lahey

Last week marked the end of a major, 10-day international Earth Summit, an event that saw government officials from across the globe come together to talk, essentially, about how to let humans live safe, happy lives on earth without wrecking the environment. Rio+20 marked 20 years since the 1992 Earth Summit, which saw landmark conventions signed on climate change and biodiversity. But though governments the world over have made some efforts to live up to their sustainable development obligations, little progress has been made over the past two decades, and Canada is no exception. So what’s a bystander to take away from this year’s summit and the agreement that was signed there?

The Urban Hippie chatted with James Meadowcroft, professor of political science at Carleton University, who gave us a few important points to ponder about what went down at Rio+20.

One: The Rio+20 agreement doesn’t mean much
The agreement signed by the parties to the summit, rather than setting out binding guidelines for change, is really just a “symbolic statement of intent to work together,” explains Meadowcroft. The main players, rather than create a substantive agreement, were “bickering. They had all sorts of other things on their minds besides the environment and international inequity and the problems of poorer countries. Countries are worried about big power competition between China and the US, they’re worried about the fate of the Euro, and basically they’re worried about everything except sustainable development and the environment.” So the world leaders are a tad stressed and not paying attention, in other words.

Two: This isn’t going away, world leaders
All of us here on the planet are consuming more, says Meadowcroft, which naturally means more pressure on the earth’s resources. None of the problems with climate change and global social inequities are going away, so the performance of world leaders at Rio+20 is seen to be even more shortsighted since stated goals of furthering sustainable development are getting no real action, and things are getting worse, fast.

Three: Canada didn’t do itself any favours
“Canada has played a particularly negative role [on environmental issues] in the past two or three years, and this conference is no exception,” says Meadowcroft. And Canada did nothing at this conference to improve its worsening international reputation on the environment and sustainable development. Twenty years ago, Canada was known as a leader on climate change and development assistance, but now we’ve become among developed world’s “worst” in these areas, says Meadowcroft. The current government did little to dissuade critics who think Canada’s agenda has less to do with global equality and the environment, and more to do with selling lots of oil.

Four: But some parts of Canada are doing us all a favour
Despite the seriously soft agreement signed at Rio+20, Meadowcroft says Canadians can still look to some of our own for signs that we can do good when it comes to climate change. He points to British Columbia, where a carbon tax is in place, and to Ontario, where the province is phasing out coal-fired power, both initiatives aimed at cleaning up our impact act on the environment.