RIO+20: U.S. swimming or sinking?

A controversial environmental policy has created serious concerns that a non-committal attitude of the U.S. to RIO+20 will prevent any meaningful outcomes. In times of presidential elections with two candidates – Obama and Romney- having different approaches to ‘green economy’, what are the chances that a position will be defined for the summit?

The event organised on 31 May by the European Policy Centre “RIO+20: The U.S. outlook to a “green economy”’, reunited under the same roof U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, and Deputy Director General for DG Environment in the European Commission, Alain Seatter. The U.S. and EU approaches have been discussed with regard to the issues expected to dominate the sustainable development agenda in RIO+20.

“The way we (U.S.) look at RIO+20 is that it is a great opportunity to help shape the vision and going forward on sustainable development,” Dr. Jones said. “We need to reintegrate all the three pillars: environment, economics, and social. It is also important for EU Member States and the U.S. to think about what citizens are looking for, pragmatic solutions and best practices,” she added.

Despite improvements, the future of the U.S. in terms of environmental regulation remains uncertain. The legislation intended to cut U.S. industrial emissions of greenhouse gases (Lieberman-Warner Cap and Trade Bill) in an effort to shift to a greener economy has been rejected. With the exceptions of some American states, the U.S. administration does not have a clear target to reduce emissions and the market mechanism is still under construction. Initiatives for a sustainable development have often seemed isolated efforts from President Obama who has nevertheless not been able to create a common framework for a ‘green economy’.

“Green economy has a lot of definitions applicable to different sectors, different countries and different levels of development. It includes looking at energy efficiency, the use of resources, how you value ecosystems and natural processes, clean energy technologies, and of course it has a human capacity element,” Dr. Jones said and highlighted the importance of involving a broad range of stakeholders, and creating a strong partnership with the civil society and private sector.

U.S. controversial environmental policy

The development of the clean energy market in the U.S. recently faced many difficulties. Some of the largest solar panels manufacturing companies such as Solyndra have been filed for bankruptcy even after being supported by government funds. A critical situation showing that if the U.S. does not create an efficient framework for both the deployment and the manufacturing of clean energy technologies, companies will be negatively affected, smashed by international competition.

Federal support mechanisms that proved to be successful in terms of ‘green economy’ such as PTC (Production Tax Credit) or the U.S. treasury grants for renewable energy (1603 Program) have been abandoned because of cuts in public spending. Private sector investments orientated towards a greener economy have been slowed down because of a lack of government’s support. Reacting to this political uncertainty, some new political movements in the U.S. such as the Tea Party have shown an extremely critical and sceptical attitude towards ‘green economy’, while the rest of the world seeks more commitment from the Americans.

Another controversial aspect of the U.S. environmental and energy policy is the increasing use of unconventional gas, extracted through hydraulics ‘fracking’. A risky procedure that could damage the environment especially with regard to water basins as it releases pollutants and uses large amounts of water. Investments in unconventional gas, oil sands, and deep water drilling, instead of pushing away the US economy from fossil fuels, are actually bringing it closer. Because most of these practices have been forbidden in Europe, is the U.S. swimming upstream? If the government relies too much on these sources of energy without setting environmental standards and with too little investments in clean technologies, how can a green message be credible in RIO+20?


Choices are running out

During the discussions Alain Settler pushed for immediate action, warning that “choices are running out” especially with regard to the sustainable development goals. Concerning the sustainable development goals Dr.Jones argued “It is a question of practicality and multi-layered level on how we come closer to goals, and then what do those goals mean also related to everything else that is out there,” linking it to the Millennium Development Goals and the importance of having a holistic and multilateral approach.

In recent years, some large U.S. companies invested in clean technology projects in developing countries. This approach, however, has often been criticised by the hosting countries perceiving it as a form of green capitalism and colonization with neither technology nor skills being transferred. This process of ‘Greenwashing’ - where some companies try to clean up their reputation investing in cheap projects in developing countries - is not uncommon with the benefits generated not well distributed. Some frameworks, like the one under the UN Clean Development Mechanism, have been quite successful in supporting sustainable development in less developed countries. The U.S. - that did not sign Kyoto - cannot use these schemes and there is often little control on the activities carried out. 

Is RIO+20 going to be a replica of Johannesbrug, with no agreement? The U.S. is required to address climate change more seriously, but most of their policies do not point towards this direction. Some crucial aspects are missing; a country with no binding targets for greenhouse gases emissions, with no serious commitment at international level, with weak support measures for green products and still relying on an aggressive energy policy based on fossil fuels, cannot position itself as a leader in terms of ‘green economy’.


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