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The Needs of the Present

China Development Gateway, June 25, 2012 Adjust font size:

Opposing positions

The failure to fully carry out those commitments was largely attributed to the confrontation between the developed North and the developing South over the issue of how to approach sustainability.

Zhao Yumin, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation (CAITEC), believed that for developing countries, priority should be given to eradicating or reducing poverty and closing the gaps with the developed world. This means they will have to adopt a development model compatible with the actual level of their national development. To them, "sustainable development should be carried out step by step, just like a baby shouldn't be expected to run before he can walk," she said.

According to Zhao, this explained why the Group of 77 developing nations and China insist on "common but differentiated responsibilities." Adopted at the Earth Summit in 1992, the concept is a cornerstone of sustainable global development. Although all countries—developed and undeveloped alike—share a common responsibility for the environment, sustainable policies must take into account each country's different national conditions. According to the framework laid out two decades ago, the North should therefore proactively support sustainability efforts in the South.

Phil Kline, from Greenpeace U.S.A. in Washington, D.C., told Beijing Review that the concept embodied common human values. He said developed countries should help developing nations because they are in a much more privileged position.

"It will be the right thing to do if they can let poor countries share what they already have," Kline said.

Conflict has dominated the preparatory meetings for Rio+20, as countries from the North and the South disagreed over both fundamental principles and trivial details, frequently in areas such as green economy policies and sustainable development goals. A source close to the Chinese delegation revealed that talks in the two initial rounds of the negotiations between March and May dragged on for weeks, largely because of North-South disputes.

The wording of the document was repeatedly revised, with individual articles added and paragraphs deleted—one step forward, two steps back. The final draft was cut to just 49 pages, down from more than 200 in the beginning. This hard bargaining essentially shows the North and the South were "on the alert against each other," the source said. On June 14, a negotiator identified as representing the Group of 77 member countries reportedly walked out of the meeting room to protest the North's refusal to compromise.

Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, executive secretary of the Brazilian Government's negotiation committee, also acknowledged that "countries with converging interests did form some kinds of alliances during the negotiation process."

Developing countries invariably expressed their disapproval of the North's attitude to shun responsibility. Raoul Ferdinand Diandy, a Senegalese Foreign Ministry official, pointed out rich countries can and should help poor countries in reducing poverty and developing green economy despite their current difficulties.

Hussein Al-Gunied, the Republic of Yemen's Deputy Minister for Environmental Affairs, said, "The North has retreated from what they had promised at the 1992 Earth Summit," which he also attended. He pointed out developed nations should take on a "much greater share of responsibility" in sustainable development.

"They had polluted the water and air, and made heavy use of our energy and other resources, and then, as they became rich and economically powerful, they began to restrict our development. This is not fair," he said.

Green economy dilemma

As one of the major themes of Rio+20, building a green economy was another point of contention between the North and the South. While they all agreed that recognizing the economic value of natural capital and ecological services is important to ensuring sustainable development, serious disputes remained between the two sides at the negotiation table. Again, the reality is developing countries are short of the capital and technology for the industrial restructuring required to implement measures such as carbon emissions trading, while developed nations boast a large pool of such resources.

Germany, for instance, now offers as many as 250,000 job opportunities in local green economy sectors, according to one statistic, and the number is predicted to rise to 300,000 by 2030. "If the North could help the South, in terms of financial aid, technology transfer, as well as market access, not only the two sides, but the whole world will also benefit," said Enoch Deng, Secretary General of the International Green Economy Association, at an NGO event in Rio de Janeiro.

Zhao of CAITEC simply said that by selling the notion of a green economy to the developing world, developed countries actually intended to draw up the rules of the game so that they would make use of the initial opportunities economically or even politically.

Criticisms aside, there were also constructive views voiced over the North-South confrontation. Sha Zukang, Secretary General of Rio+20 and UN Under Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, pointed out that although the argument between the North and the South was becoming intense, the ultimate goals of sustainable development should bridge the gap between the North and the South, rather than erecting a barrier to divide them.

He Jikun, Chairman of the Chinese Society for Sustainable Development, an NGO that hosted a workshop on the sidelines of the Rio+20 conference, also called for closer international cooperation in dealing with the challenges, saying it would be in everyone's best interest for people from different countries to join hands to create a better world.

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