Rio exposes bad blood between Ottawa, environmentalists
A man runs on Botafogo beach near a huge sculpture made from plastic bottles, backdropped by a silhouette of Sugarloaf mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the early morning hours of Wednesday, June 20, 2012. The city is host to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, which runs through June 22. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, June 20, 2012 10:28AM EDT
OTTAWA -- The bad blood between Ottawa and environmentalists was on display before the entire world Tuesday as negotiators from more than 100 countries signed a draft blueprint for sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro.
After months of trying to boil down proposals, environmental officials at the Rio+20 conference in Brazil this week finally compromised and delivered a 283-point "vision" for leaders and politicians to ratify later this week.
In the draft, the countries pledge to work with civil society to "renew our commitment to sustainable development, and to ensure the promotion of economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations."
The plan would commit countries to fight climate change with "urgent and ambitious action," increase their aid for developing countries, and work out a global set of long-term sustainable development goals to alleviate poverty and prevent global warming.
Critics say the draft is weak on timelines and firm commitments, and lacks heft when it comes to overseeing the state of the world's oceans.
"The text is extremely weak, and as it stands represents a sellout of people and the planet," Cameron Fenton, director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, said in an email from Rio.
"Canada's role has been at its best not engaging in the process, and at worst acting to weaken ambitious language and delete commitments."
Oxfam Canada's Mark Fried noted the official text did not contain any new commitments, and even modest proposals -- such as improving smallholder farmers' access to resources -- were dropped.
"The Rio+20 summit was never going to save the world," Fried said in an email from Rio. "But it should mark a decisive turning point in our ambition to do so."
Environment Minister Peter Kent, who arrived in Rio late Tuesday afternoon, said the environmentalists' criticism was "unwarranted" and "trivializes" the enormity of the task before negotiators.
"The non-governmental organizations....they know better," Kent said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "Canada takes these things very seriously."
The Rio conference is meant to kickstart action and discussion down the road, not come up with "snap" agreements that are not properly thought out and could well have unintended consequences on sovereignty and domestic policy if adopted without proper scrutiny, Kent said.
"These are beginnings, not completions."
About 50,000 delegates and activists have descended on the Brazilian city for the week. Dozens of heads of state will meet Wednesday and Thursday, although many industrialized countries, like Canada, are sending ministers instead of leaders.
Kent was set to meet with provincial delegations Tuesday night. Premiers from Quebec and Manitoba are both in Rio, along with officials and ministers from some other provinces.
Environmentalists blamed Canada, in part, for arguing against a new agreement that would better protect the biodiversity of the high seas, where no country has any firm control.
Europe and some developing countries, as well as many environmental groups, had hoped to see leaders commit to forging a new agreement that would protect marine habitat and keep an eye on deep-sea mining.
Instead, negotiators agreed to talk some more, and decide later.
"It's a big failure of Rio, especially since this was talked about as the 'summit of the seas,"' said Susanna Fuller, marine conservation co-ordinator for the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax who was in the negotiating room in Rio.
While regional agreements and fishing accords do control some aspects of biodiversity in some parts of the world's oceans, there are many gaps that beg a global agreement in order to prevent destruction of habitat and ocean pollution, she said.
Developing countries in particular had hoped to have a biodiversity pact so that any benefits derived from marine genetics are shared for the common good, added Greenpeace Canada's ocean campaigner, Charles Latimer.
But Fuller said Canada, the United States, Russia and Venezuela worked together to make sure there would be no new agreement.
That's because Canada is already part of a United Nations ad hoc process to protect the high seas, and creating another agreement would be "duplicative," a spokesman for Kent countered.
Kent said Ottawa is engaged in several different efforts to protect marine habitat, creating conservation areas in domestic waters and participating in global talks to protect international waters.
But critics say there is more to Canada's opposition than that. Canada's companies have an interest in deep-sea mining that might be fettered by a new high-seas biodiversity agreement, they say.
Canada is also becoming known for doing what it can to prevent new agreements on the environment, added Fuller.
"The general direction of the current government is not generally supportive of laws and agreements on the environment," she said. Compared with Canada's constructive role in negotiations in the past, "it's a whole different personality for Canada these days."
Ottawa has been in an escalating public-opinion battle with environmentalists for months to the point where there is virtually no common ground between the government and even moderate research-based environmental groups.
In the lead-up to the budget, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver chastised environmentalists for taking foreign funding. Protests against federal policy have been growing louder and louder, targeting the budget and its emphasis on "responsible resource management", and most recently the omnibus budget bill that overhauls environmental assessment regimes and the Fisheries Act.