European Union and Global Sustainability: Issues for Rio 2012

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Seventh ECPD International Conference
Milocer, Montenegro, 21-22 October 2011

European Union and Global Sustainability: Issues for Rio 2012

Prof. Dr. Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

This paper provides a policy briefing on the issues and challenges for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 4-6 June 2012, with particular reference to the potential role of the European Union and implications for the Balkans countries.

The EU role in the world

The European Union is today a significant voice in international diplomacy. At a time when the United States is largely preoccupied with domestic politics, and Japan has turned inward because of its economic difficulties and major natural and nuclear disasters, Europe speaks most effectively for the advanced economies. The global balance of economic and diplomatic power is changing rapidly with the rise of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russian Federation, India and China) and the decline of the United States. The G77 of the developing countries is often paralyzed by its internal contradictions, between, say, the OPEC countries and the Small Island Developing States. The European Union is thus often the most forward looking major partner in international negotiations.

Global sustainability issues

In the forty years that the environment and sustainability have been on the international agenda, the global situation has degraded rapidly. Rockström et al. (2009) have identified nine planetary limits that must be respected to avoid serious disruptions to planetary-scale systems. They are climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, nitrogen cycle and phosphorus cycle, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global freshwater use, change in land use, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution. We have already exceeded the planetary limit for the first three, often by a considerable margin.

Climate change has been accelerating even faster than most scientists had predicted, and threatens massive impacts on human society in the decades ahead, yet negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have bogged down. After near failure in Copenhagen and only a mitigated success in Cancun, the next Conference of the Parties in Durban at the end of 2011 will be critical. If governments again fail to make significant progress on the next steps to control the emissions of greenhouse gases, this will cast a shadow over the whole multilateral decision-making process under the United Nations, and over the Rio+20 conference in particular. In comparison, the last Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, meeting in Nagoya, was reasonably successful, perhaps because biodiversity is less central to national interests than energy and climate change.

Another sustainability concern is food security. Significant price rises in the last few years have seriously impacted access to food by the poor. Globally, 38% of all arable land has been degraded in the last 60 years (Montgomery, 2007). An increasing number of countries are facing water shortages, which may be aggravated by climate change. Countries and companies are buying up massive areas of farmland in Africa to ensure their own food security, in what has been described as a global land grab.

On the economic side, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 has shaken economic certainties. Unsustainable levels of consumer, corporate and government debt are threatening to bring down the whole economic system, and corruption has become massive with the collapse of moral standards. Socially, the extremes of poverty and wealth have widened, and unemployment has increased massively, especially for the young. Climate change will add to the existing pressures for migration, producing a mixing of populations around the world at a scale never before experienced. The social and ethical challenges arising from these dimensions of unsustainability will be some of the defining problems of this century.

The Rio+20 Conference

It is in this context that the Rio+20 conference ( will assemble the governments of the world and many representatives of civil society to address the failures to implement the action plans and programmes of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Its aim is to renew political commitment to the sustainability agenda, and to adopt a focused political document. Governments have selected two major themes for the conference: the Green Economy in the context of poverty alleviation, and Institutional Arrangements for Sustainable Development. The first aims to respond to the problems in the world economy while moving towards more sustainable practices, and the second addresses the failures of governance across the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. In addition, the conference will consider emerging issues, including green jobs and social inclusion; energy access, efficiency and sustainability; food security and sustainable agriculture; sound water management; sustainable cities; management of the oceans; improved resilience and disaster preparedness, and the cross-cutting aspects of climate change and the means of implementation. The government of Brazil is planning to use the days just before the conference for thematic discussions on: water, energy, solid waste, financial instruments, conservation of biodiversity, employment, gender, and public procurement. This is a very full agenda and shows the complexity of the interrelated issues that must be addressed to move the world society towards a more sustainable future.

EU leadership

One of the major limitations in international governance and diplomacy is the constraint imposed by the existing paradigm of national sovereignty, enshrined in the UN Charter and endlessly repeated in international agreements. In a rapidly globalizing world, giving absolute priority to national interests and their defense, rather than to the common interest of all humanity, frequently leads to paralysis. Where decisions are taken by consensus or subject to a veto, one nation can block any decision that it considers against its national interest. No democracy could function under such a system.

It is in this context that the efforts of the states in the European Union over decades to rise above significant pillars of national sovereignty in their common interest is a model to the world. Many lessons, often painfully learned through trial and error within Europe, have wider applicability to challenges in Balkans and at the global level. The EU's Sustainable Development Strategy shows the power of creating a regional strategic framework for common national action. The EU has pioneered in carbon trading, while showing the difficulties of converting a theoretical concept into practical action. Through the Schengen Agreement, it has opened national frontiers to free movement of people without immigration controls. National currencies, one of the most potent symbols of national sovereignty, were replaced within the Euro zone. None of these steps has been easy, and new difficulties still arise that have to be resolved, but the lessons learned will be invaluable, such as when countries see the inevitable need for a single world currency, as Keynes proposed at Bretton Woods in 1944.

The EU is now giving serious consideration to new steps forward in addressing economic, social and environmental sustainability. There is much attraction to the concept of the Green Economy as a way to move the economy out of recession while transforming it in more environmentally sustainable directions. Europe has committed to a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, but a recent report (Jaeger et al. 2011) argues persuasively that raising the target to 30% would provide a significant stimulus to economic growth in the region. A proposed tax on international financial transactions (the so-called Tobin Tax) is now being considered as a tool to restrain the international financial speculation that is destabilizing everything from indebted governments to food prices. Some European countries are also supporting the upgrade of UNEP to a UN Environment Organization (specialized agency). This ability to innovate and to think creatively about international problems allows the European Union to contribute constructively to global diplomacy.

The same approach to creative but pragmatic action has been applied to candidate countries wishing to join the EU, from which the Balkan states have benefited and continue to benefit. Meeting the requirements of the “acquis communautaire” may seem difficult, but it also means catching up with the accumulated experience of 27 states in many areas of governance. Similar processes will be necessary as the nations of the world build mechanisms of international governance for sustainability and need to close the gaps that now separate the advanced and developing economies.

Challenges at Rio+20

The prospects for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio next June are still uncertain. The conference is shorter than previous conferences, and there has been less time for preparation. The secretariat is collecting proposals on which to base a zero draft of the conference outcome document, which will be available in January 2012 and negotiated through May. The developing countries in the G77, and many non-governmental organizations, are wary of the concept of the Green Economy, fearing that it will just be “greenwashing” of predatory business practices, and not the fundamental transformation of the economy that they feel is required. Responding to this, UNEP has argued for an important social equity component in the Green Economy (UNEP 2011).

There are also strong divergences between countries over institutional arrangements at the international level. The United States has generally been unwilling to support a strengthened United Nations, and the unpopularity of the UN with significant segments of the American people makes this even more so in a presidential election year. There is no consensus on creating a UN Environment Organization, or a new organization for sustainable development. In any case, most institutions are structured by sectors (economic, social, environmental) whether in the UN, in governments or in academia, and there is generally strong resistance to proposals for mergers or integration across sectors, as would be required to achieve a systems approach to sustainable development.

A further complication is the power struggle between the countries with the most advanced economies and the large emerging economies such as Brazil, Russian Federation, India and China. Big power diplomacy has little time for sustainability issues, and will happily trade off long-term concerns for more immediate advantages.

There is even increasing disillusionment with multilateral diplomacy at the United Nations. As mentioned above, another failure to make real progress on climate change in the face of the alarming speed of change signaled by such things as polar melting, could cast a cloud over Rio+20. There is already pressure from some sources to downgrade the conference from a summit of heads of state and government to a lower level meeting.

Between the scientific necessity for rapid international action on environmental problems overshooting planetary limits (Rockström et al., 2009) and the forces of political realism, it is not yet clear which will win out in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. The European Union, and along with it the Balkan countries, will have a say. Where the EU has proven that action is possible, it will be much more persuasive in arguing for the common interest of all humanity.


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Montgomery, David R. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. University of California Press, Berkeley. 285 p.

Rockström, Johan et al. 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461:472-475 (24 September 2009); and Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. 2009. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32. [online] URL:

UNEP. 2011. Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication - A Synthesis for Policy Makers,

Last updated 2 November 2011