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UN Envoys Close to Deal on Energy, Sustainability Goals

German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier
Peter Altmaier, Germany's environment minister. Photographer: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg

Envoys from 190 nations attending a United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro are close to reaching an agreement that will mark one of the broadest steps yet to harmonize economic development with global efforts to protect the environment

Delegates at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development are working through a 50-page text, with 287 paragraphs, addressing ways to encourage cuts in fossil-fuel subsidies, support the use of renewable energy and defining “broader measures of progress” than gross domestic product, according to the draft agreement.

The delegates’ goal is to finalize the terms before June 20 when 130 world leaders are due to attend the event and may formally endorse the agreement, Nikhil Seth, head of the UN secretariat governing the talks, said at a briefing in Rio today.

“The trickle of agreements has now turned into a flood, and large parts of the text have been agreed to,” Seth said. Negotiators are “galloping toward the finish line.”

The discussions cap more than a year of meetings aimed at establishing goals for nations to follow. The conference comes two decades after the first Earth Summit, which was also in Rio de Janeiro.

Lobbying groups including Greenpeace International and delegations from Europe to Bangladesh said the final text may be so weak it will have little meaning.

“There is considerable margin for improvement,” German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier said in a briefing today. “We want to use every hour and minute over the next couple of days to see what we can do to make the conclusions clearer, sharper and more ambitious.”

Imminent Deal

Brazil’s envoys, who are coordinating the talks, said they are confident the text will be agreed upon as early as tonight. Still being debated are the ways the goals will be implemented and the wording on how oceans will be protected, said Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, Brazil’s climate negotiator.

“The negotiations are still ongoing,” he said during a press briefing today. “There is a very positive mood. It is now 6 p.m., and I expect to have to go a few more hours. We are absolutely convinced the text will be finished and concluded tonight.”

More than 50,000 delegates are expected to attend the conference, making it the biggest ever gathering organized by the UN. Participants spread across Rio in hotels and at an airport-sized convention center in the west of the city are discussing issues from carbon emissions associated with fossil fuels to ensuring arsenic from mining operations doesn’t contaminate water supplies.

They’re also working on plans to map out “sustainable development” goals that will be negotiated in the next few years.

Big Loopholes

“The text is a nice signal, but you could drive a truck through all the loopholes,” said Jake Schmidt, director of international climate policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group. “All of the tangible outcomes were weakened or removed.”

The agenda this week takes the issue of environmental protection beyond the annual round of UN-sponsored climate talks, which are focused on drawing up a treaty limiting fossil-fuel emissions blamed for damaging the atmosphere. The Rio summit 20 years ago initiated the climate talks and a treaty on biodiversity.

Early Draft

Host-nation Brazil late on June 16 published a 50-page set of draft conclusions for the so-called Rio+20 conference after taking over an earlier, lengthier document that the UN had described as 37 percent agreed. Brazilian and UN diplomats had wanted to get approval by tonight for the paper, titled “The Future We Want,” in time to prepare for the arrival of world leaders.

Instead, negotiators are expecting the dialog to go through the night. The Brazilian text represents an effort to chart the middle ground between countries such as the European Union’s 27 members, which want to push the “green economy” including renewable power and energy-efficiency measures, and poorer nations whose priority is lifting people out of poverty rather than pursuing expensive clean technologies.

“To ensure a transition to a green economy it will be a huge cost for developing countries,” said Quamrul Chowdhury, an envoy from Bangladesh who negotiates on finance for the G77 group of developing nations. “Who is going to bear that cost? If countries like Bangladesh invest in a green economy, that means we have to cut back programs to fight poverty.”

‘Weak Words’

WWF, an environmental group, said the new text is full of “weak words” such as “encourage” and “promote,” rather than “will” and “must.” The group put the tally at 514 weak words to 10 strong ones. The agreement being planned won’t be legally binding.

“The weak words appear in the parts of the text we most need hardened up,” said Lasse Gustavsson, the chief of WWF’s delegation in Rio. “The section on green economy launches a process which they already launched in 1992.”

The document doesn’t go far enough, he said. “The language around much-needed sustainable development goals and around energy could have been written by the oil and gas industry.”

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