By Julio Godoy, May 7, 2012
The decision by the European Parliament (EP) to renounce its participation in the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development next month on the grounds that hotel costs are exorbitant has provoked sharp criticism from civil society organisations.
In a statement released May 7, and which almost went unnoticed, the chairman of the EP environment committee Matthias Groote said that the parliament declined to send a delegation to the Rio + 20 summit due to the "huge increase in the estimated hotel cost(s)", which he called "simply not justifiable."
But non-governmental organisations dismissed such arguments as "alibi" and the decision as the EP’s conscious failure to play its role as a fundamental check and balance institution within the European Union (EU), especially vis-a-vis its executive body, the European Commission (EC).
Belen Balanya, expert on international environmental policy at the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), told IPS that the EP decision to cancel "all participation in Rio is simply regrettable. I do not know how much effort they have put in looking for viable options to go or if it is more a decision that has other, obscure reasons."
The Brussels-based CEO is a research and campaign group working to expose and challenge the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups in EU policy making.
At the Rio+20 Conference, the 20 year follow up to the Earth Summit of 1992, world leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, NGOs and other groups, will come together to define a global policy agenda to reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental sustainability.
Balanya said that the Rio + 20 summit is "the end of a process which is going on for months, and the responsibility of the EP should have been to check and ensure throughout the process that the European Commission played an adequate role in the negotiations to promoted a change for more sustainable societies."
Balanya recalled that the EC has been mainly pushing "a bigger role for corporations in the Rio+20 Summit and related U.N. processes and the financialisation of nature, such as biodiversity."
This European policy "will further promote the privatisation of nature, benefitting only a small minority and will not attempt a change in the current model of consumption and production, therefore not helping to solve the environmental crisis."
"Such European policies will certainly not benefit the poor," Balanya added.
NGO representatives in Germany called the EP decision "odd." A Berlin-based German development expert, who asked not to be identified, told IPS, "The civil society organisations are sending delegates to Rio, without incurring in horrendous hotel costs."
Jo Leinen, member of Social Democratic group at the EP, and who was supposed to be part of the European delegation to Rio, called the parliamentary decision "regrettable"
In an interview with IPS, Leinen said that the absence of the EP at Rio + 20 "is a big deficit. We should be there, but there is a cartel of hotels in Rio that is abusing of the conference to demand irresponsible prices."
Leinen admitted that the European environmental policies are at best stagnating. "Europe is still the vanguard in global environmental and sustainability policies, but the present financial and economic crisis is changing the priorities."
"The EU must be better, in reducing resources consumption, in improving solidarity with the developing world," Leinen said. "But European governments now have other urgent problems to solve."
In the run up to Rio + 20, the European Union has actively promoted the concept of a green economy, but without actually defining what the term means.
European environmental groups and governments from developing countries, especially those represented at the Group of 77, have rejected the concept as merely a ploy by industrialised countries to pursue their own interests, particularly the expansion of foreign markets for technology, without taking into account the needs of the countries of the South.
In a recent analysis on the perspectives of Rio + 20, VENRO, the umbrella federation of some 120 development non-governmental organisations in Germany, called this "green economy" a fuzzy idea, of which "there is no a general accepted definition."
In the paper, VENRO points out that technology transfers and improved economic efficiency, defended by the European Union and U.N. institutions as part of this new green economy "do not necessarily lead to a reduced consumption of resources," an indispensable element of a truly sustainable economy.
Therefore, VENRO concludes, such a "green economy" does not constitute a new economic paradigm that would simultaneously guarantee sustainability and poverty reduction.
In the paper, VENRO pointed out that the first draft of a final declaration for Rio + 20, the so called "zero draft", has been rejected by civil society groups and developing countries alike, "since it does not question the fundamental tenets of a neoliberal economy, namely free trade and economic growth."
Balanya, of CEO, also urged the EU "to stop promoting this flawed concept of green economy, which involves the expansion of the logic of carbon markets to other areas such as water or biodiversity."
Balanya said that in general the European environmental policies, as "failing badly."
She explicitly referred to the EU's climate and environmental flagship policy, the Emissions Trading System (ETS). In theory, the ETS "provides a cheap and efficient means to limit greenhouse gas emissions within an ever-tightening cap. But in practice it has rewarded big polluters with windfall profits," Balanya pointed out.
Additionally, "It is undermining efforts to reduce emissions and guarantee sustainability with other policies."
Indeed, there is growing evidence that carbon markets are not a solution to tackling the climate crisis or moving towards a low-carbon, sustainable economy. In most cases, the ETS fails to make countries take responsibility for their own emissions, instead allowing them to offset emissions by buying permits from countries from the South.
"Besides, the European ETS is facing a crash in carbon prices to extraordinary levels," Balanya added. Low carbon prices render empty the EU logic behind the ETS, that prices will create scarcity of permits to pollute and will encourage corporations to reduce emissions, thus cancelling out other efforts to improve resource sustainability.
Balanya said that in general, "the EU has incorporated the discourse on sustainability in many of their policies and treaties, but it does not go beyond rhetoric." In reality, she added, the trade and investment policies promoted by the EU, as well as its environmental and energy policies, "are fuelling and locking in a very unsustainable model of production and consumption."