Global Economy Limits Expectations at Earth Summit in Brazil

Source: By SIMON ROMERO and JOHN M. BRODER, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Felipe Dana/Associated Press A subway train in Rio was a varied scene on Monday, as the People’s Summit vied for attention with a United Nations conference.

RIO DE JANEIRO — Global leaders, development experts, bankers, academics and activists are gathering here this week to celebrate the anniversary of the landmark Earth Summit of 1992 and to try to address the linked problems of poverty, hunger, energy shortages and environmental degradation.

But the conference — expected to draw as many as 50,000 participants — is in many ways overshadowed by economic and political crises around the world. While more than 100 heads of state and government are planning to attend the formal talks starting Wednesday, President Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany are staying away, preoccupied by domestic politics and the financial turmoil in Europe.

As a result, while diplomats feverishly negotiate a complex 80-page document spelling out the meeting’s goals, there are few expectations for concrete actions or pledges of new aid to developing countries. Delegates said the constraints of the still-faltering global economy had dampened hopes and refueled the conflicts between industrialized and developing countries that have hobbled international development and environment talks for years.

Nick Robins, an analyst at HSBC, the international bank based in London, said that companies and financial institutions that support international development projects had hoped to see the conference produce an approach that would increase the flow of funds to the developing world. So far, he has been disappointed.

“What began as a mixed bag of proposals has, however, ballooned into a baggy and fractious document that mostly ‘reaffirms’ past commitments and ‘acknowledges’ problems, but marks precious little forward movement,” Mr. Robins said in a research note published last week.

The conference is formally titled the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, but is more popularly known as Rio+20 because it commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit here that produced a global treaty on climate change and an agreement to protect biodiversity. The two accords have sweeping ambitions, but have yielded only modest results so far.

Representatives are trying to tackle big questions such as protecting the world’s forests and fisheries, bringing electricity to the more than one billion people who lack access to it, weaning the world off fossil fuels and encouraging farming and economic growth that do not destroy the natural environment.

Todd Stern, the United States’ special envoy for climate change and the lead negotiator at the talks here, said that the Rio conference brought together the critical players who could broaden the discussion beyond the rich country-poor country dialogue that had grown tedious.

“The tough economic situation globally has an impact on government budgets and the capacity of traditional donor countries to provide traditional assistance, but we shouldn’t overemphasize that constraint as other powerful factors are in play now,” he said in an e-mail. “Official development assistance represents only 13 percent of capital flows to developing countries today, compared to 70 percent in the 1960s, and that’s because of the growing role of the private sector, trade, remittances and the like.”

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said the timing of the conference was unfortunate.

“Europe has been the great leader of environmental action,” Mr. Sachs said in an interview here, “but Europe is hardly functioning right now.”

For Brazil, hosting the conference creates an opportunity to project influence into different parts of the developing world. For instance, Brazil is sending Embraer jets to transport the delegations from 10 countries in Africa and the Caribbean, including Malawi, Sierra Leone, Dominica and Grenada.

The gesture speaks to Brazil’s emergence as a financial powerhouse in Latin America, in stark contrast to the economic situation during the first Earth Summit, when Brazil was still struggling with galloping inflation and economic instability

While the growth of the Brazilian economy has recently slowed, along with that of other big developing countries, like China and India, President Dilma Rousseff has found herself in the position of defending her government’s development model, which involves the assertive use of state-controlled companies and banks to advance antipoverty projects.

“It’s possible to have a country that develops economically, with growth and inclusion of its population, while also respecting the environment,” Ms. Rousseff said in an address last week.

Brazilian diplomats have staked out an assertive role in preliminary talks, resisting proposals from rich industrialized countries that developing nations should be required to pay more to reduce environmental degradation.

William K. Reilly, who as head of the Environmental Protection Agency led the American delegation to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, said in an interview that he expected many of the delegates to the convention this year to criticize President Obama’s decision not to attend, sending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in his place. But Mr. Reilly said it was untenable for Mr. Obama to go, because he had no financial resources to offer and because he would face substantial criticism at home for seeming to be more concerned with global problems than domestic issues.

President George Bush faced similar criticism in 1992, and decided to go over the objections of his political advisers. Mr. Bush lost the election that year to Bill Clinton.

“The international community is going to have to learn never to hold a big global conference during an American presidential election year,” Mr. Reilly said.