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Citizen Actions Turn Up the Heat for a Warming Planet

Portia Crowe

MONTREAL, Canada, Sep 11 2011 (IPS) - Civil society leaders meeting here for the 2011 CIVICUS World Assembly are looking ahead toward next year’s Rio+20 summit – a milestone anniversary of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and a crucial meeting of U.N. member states and non-governmental organisations to work towards a greener future.

In advance of the June 2012 summit, officially dubbed the Conference on Sustainable Development, some environmentalists say they are concerned about its focus on developing a “Green Economy”.

According to Sustain Labour‘s Laura Martin, the green economy originated as a concept in 2007, when governments created “green” stimulus packages to offset financial panic. Now, some argue that it is taking away from the summit’s real objective: sustainable development.

Despite the official Green Economy targets of creating green jobs, a social protection floor, and new and green fiscality and redistribution, Martin explained that, in reality, stimulus packages have already become insufficient, rhetoric has replaced real policies, and the momentum of 2007 has largely dissipated.

“It [green economy] is a big issue in North America and Europe, and it’s an acceptable concept, but of course there’s other social pillars of development which I think are very much missing,” Gilbert Sape of Pesticide Action Network: Asia and the Pacific (PANAP) told IPS.

“There’s going to be tension at the national level,” he said.

Most of the objection to the summit’s green economy-focus has come from the developing world, represented by the United Nations Group of 77 (or G77), while European nations are generally in favour of it. If member states are unable to reach a consensus, the meeting could face a similar fate as past climate change talks: incompletion and irresolution.

In 2009, the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP-15) in Copenhagen was temporarily suspended when G-77 members famously walked out in protest. Last May, the 19th round of the Conference on Sustainable Development – the forerunner to Rio+20 – broke down after 10 days of negotiations when no outcome document could be agreed upon.

“Unless people see green economy as a tool to achieve sustainable development and poverty alleviation, it’s not going to go forward and we’re heading further to failure,” said Chantal Line Carpentier, of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Rio+20 Secretariat.

“We just have to be clever about it,” she told IPS.

Carpentier recently visited Santiago, Chile, where a group of Latin American representatives rejected the concept of Green Economy in a preparatory meeting. But when it was reintroduced in the context of poverty alleviation and sustainable development, she said, the members reconsidered and accepted it.

“I think we’re doing ourselves a disfavour when we just say ‘Green Economy,'” she said.

Saturday’s speakers at the Sep. 10-12 assembly agreed on the importance of civil society in pressuring member states to come to a consensus at next year’s Earth Summit.

“We have to make them accountable to what they agreed to 10 years ago, 20 years ago,” Anselmo Lee of the Korea Civil Society Forum on International Development Cooperation told IPS.

“Then we will see what happens,” he added.

According to PANAP’s Sape, the outcome of Rio+20 will depend entirely on the motivation of regular citizens.

“We have seen the U.N. and how it works,” he said, “so the success of getting what we want will really depend upon the strength of the protest – of the people,” he said.

That kind of bottom-up influence has been key to past successes, according to Carpentier.

“The only reason Rio (1992) worked is because the governments felt the pressure from civil society,” she explained. “Now, they don’t feel it … and they’re not going to do anything unless they feel the pressure.”

“People need to decide whether this is important to them, whether they want Rio+20 to deliver, what they want it to deliver – and agree. And then create a movement,” she told IPS.

She said that under the “Major Group” tab on the official Rio+20 website, civil society members are encouraged to post petitions, position papers, and links to their blogs.

“The member states go there to find ideas about Rio+20. They go there to see if there’s a lot of activity and if they should feel the pressure or not,” she explained, adding that right now, they are not feeling such stress.

She likened the United Nations to a national government. “Sometimes, you have champions in the government,” she said, “but they need you to go to them and help them … If they don’t get leadership from the top, they need support from the bottom.”

She also noted the important role that civil society played during Copenhagen’s COP-15. Although that conference has largely been considered a failure, she said, it was successful in drawing global attention to the issue.

“You cannot go anywhere on this planet now and have a person not knowing what climate change is – and civil society did that,” she said, noting global movements like the Tick Tick campaign.

“It’s not the member states that did that. It’s not the U.N. It’s civil society that basically raised awareness for the entire planet,” she added.

“So civil society have a huge role. Civil society have so much power,” she said.

The CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation is an influential network of organisations at the local, national, regional and international levels, including civil society networks and organisations; trade unions; faith-based networks; professional associations; NGO capacity development organisations; philanthropic foundations and other funding bodies.

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