An Israeli take on the Rio+20 conference

The writing was clearly on the wall, but the governmental delegations that gathered together at the recent world summit on sustainable development (known popularly as Rio+20) failed to provide the needed leadership toward high-quality lifestyles within the resource boundaries of the planet.

Several outstanding scientific panels had tabled documents indicating that current consumption levels of natural resources and the emissions, and wastes generated by current economic activity, were beyond the “safe operating boundaries” of the planet’s ecological systems, and that this generation was already leaving ecological debts for the future.  Economic leaders who met in Davos at the World Economic Forum earlier this year recognized the need for transforming the economy, and stated that current trends are not sustainable. The OECD issued a new Environmental Outlook to 2050, which stated that continuation of current trends was not an acceptable option for the future.  The UN Environment Program (UNEP) issued a new Global Environmental Outlook, GEO 5, emphasizing the urgency of taking action to reverse unsustainable trends.

But the political leaders who gathered together atRioin June 2012 concluded their deliberations without any clear vision or outcome. The outcome document entitled “The future we want” reiterates global concerns, emphasizes that developing countries are primarily concerned with combating poverty and achieving economic growth and expect to receive budgets, technology transfer and capacity building.

The firstRiosummit, 20 years ago, concluded with major environmental agreements on climate change, biodiversity and combating desertification, as well as producing an enlightening guidance document entitled “Agenda 21.” The lack of commitment at the current Rio summit raises a question mark as to the value of such massive global summits, especially coming after the failure to reach a global agreement on climate change atCopenhagen.

Israel, however, recognized that the summit could offer opportunities for diplomatic and economic activity. Environment had already been identified as an area in which Israel could play an active role in international affairs and where it had already been accepted as a representative of the UN Grouping of “West Europe and Others – WEOG.”

Israelhad previously been elected to the Governing Council of UNEP as a representative of WEOG, andIsrael’s minister for environmental protection was appointed chair of the session on environmental outlooks at the recent OECD meeting of environment ministers inParis. Following active participation ofIsrael’s diplomatic and environmental staff in the UN committee responsible for the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) and for organizing the Rio conference (ECOSOC),Israel’s minister for environmental protection was elected to vice chairman of the World Summit inRio. Election to such a high-level role, at a meeting in which some 50 heads of state participated, can be seen as a very welcome diplomatic achievement in a world whereIsraelis frequently on the defensive in the UN and other international arenas.

The Rio summit offeredIsraelan opportunity to exhibit its expertise and technological capability in agricultural services to third world countries, seeking how to increase food supplies to an increasing population with limited water resources. This has traditionally been an agenda in whichIsraelcould show leadership based on its own agricultural achievements.

In preparing itself forRio,Israelprepared documents on what it perceived as the agenda for global concern. It issued explanatory documents on indicators for sustainable development, sustainable consumption and on a sustainability outlook forIsraelto 2030. The need for indicators on social and environmental issues, complementary to measures of GDP, appears in theRiooutcome document. Sustainable consumption received only a passing mention in the summit document, since most developed countries are still not yet willing to face up to the inevitable conclusion that current lifestyles are energy intensive, wasteful of scarce resources and undoubtedly unsustainable. Only a side event on SPREAD, a European financed research project at Wuppertal Institute inGermany, proposed alternative sustainable lifestyles for 2050.

National sustainability or environmental outlooks are not yet widespread. The international outlooks (such as the OECD and the UNEP outlooks mentioned above) provide outlines or frameworks for looking well ahead for setting long-term policy. Most countries are far more concerned with the immediate and short-term policy needs, often responding to imminent crises.Israel’s policies are also largely determined by what is perceived as immediate needs and crises and lack consistency between different arms of government, one ministry often neutralizing another with competing and conflicting instruments. The Sustainability Outlook to 2030, prepared by the Ministry for Environmental Protection in partnership with the Environmental Protection Center of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, represents a welcome and innovative approach to setting long term goals, through scenario building, formulating a vision of the future Israel wants, and formulating strategies and policy packages to get on a path toward the vision, whatever scenario may in fact occur.

Whatever the achievement, or more likely failure, of the Rio+20 as a global summit, it may have had positive diplomatic and environmental spin-offs forIsrael.

About the Author
Ms Valerie Brachya is a consultant on environmental policy and sustainability in Israel, previously deputy director general of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, a lecturer at the Hebrew and Tel Aviv Universities and currently director of the Environmental Policy Center of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies