Serie “Rio 92 what did it lead to? Rio +20 what will it lead to?”

Posted on 05 June 2012
Entrevista Ministra Izabella Teixeira
© Martim García
Interview Izabella Teixeira, Biologist, Brazilian Environment Minister

Biologist Izabella Teixeira has been Brazil’s Environment Minister for two years, a public office she has held after succeeding Carlos Minc, of whom she had been executive secretary since 2008.

A career civil servant with IBAMA (the acronym in Portuguese for the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, which is the Ministry of the Environment's enforcement agency), she has a PhD in Environmental Planning. Along with Brazilian diplomats Izabella Teixeira will act as the hostess of Rio +20.

Among other expectations, she would like the UN conference to create Sustainable Development Goals, "a set of targets to be achieved universally by all countries, respecting their levels of development and social characteristics," centered around the key themes of the 21st century: energy, water resources, food security, production and consumption. Below is her interview, submitted to WWF in writing.

What were you involved with at the time of the Earth Summit? Do you recall anything special that marked that conference?

I have been acting as a civil servant with IBAMA, with several stints in the public administration, in the environmental field, both in Rio and Brasilia, where I am now a Minister. In Rio 92 we were all mobilized, because before the issue of sustainable development became the focus of interest we see today in all sectors, those concerned with environmental issues were essentially environmentalists and technicians who worked in the field, as well as academics. In addition to the inspiring documents that were on the agenda, we had a charismatic and engaging leadership, the then Secretary General of the Conference, Maurice Strong. What surprised me most at the time were the manifestations from the so-called Parallel Global Forum, the NGOs, set up in Flamengo Park. Brazil had never seen anything like it. There were all those tribes, global civil society showing its face in the first global environmental conference. I was very impressed by how this society was organized, participated in the process and influenced outcomes, forever changing the format of UN conferences, which from then on began to involve the so-called “major groups,” important segments that need to be involved in discussions and agreements. It was there that the movement to protect the Atlantic forest gained national importance. There was also the Planeta Fêmea (Female Planet), a forum to discuss gender issues during the Earth Summit. Despite the diversity of ideas, proposals and initiatives, all the civil society movements were focused on and oriented towards common goals, beliefs and hopes. It was a moment of optimism that marked the work of environmentalists forever. It was a historic moment.

What countries participated more prominently in the Earth Summit? What was the participation of Latin American countries like?

The results of the Earth Summit were constructed from the joint efforts of the participating countries. Historically, it was the UN conference with the greatest participation of heads of state –among those held outside the UN headquarters in New York. This reflects the overall importance given by countries to the debate that was going on. Therefore, it is hard to single out some countries in particular, as it was a moment of global maturity in terms of the objectives which were to be achieved at the Summit. But there were still traces of sentiment such as "North” versus “South" and Latin American countries, for example, produced a document entitled "Our own agenda", to highlight the resistance of developed countries, which at the time did not want to discuss poverty, only the forests. I would like to emphasize that the role of Brazil at that time went far beyond that of a mere host, having had a particularly important role in building consensus and mediating conflicts so as to arrive at the results achieved. It is also important to note that the geopolitical setup today is completely different. In addition to an enhanced globalization phenomenon, emerging nations like Brazil at the time were starting to develop and several countries did not have environment ministries or similar bodies. When compared to Stockholm ‘72, the Earth Summit ‘92 consecrated the concept of sustainable development, and also involved civil society and mobilized the business community, bringing the economic debate into the equation, which up until then had not been central to debates in that decade.

What have been the main legacies of the Earth Summit?

The Earth Summit left us a rich legacy not only in terms of its deliberations but also in its construction process. Three of the most important international frameworks on sustainable development and environment were established at this conference: the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and Mitigate the Effects of Drought.

In addition to these Conventions, Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration, also adopted at the Earth Summit, were essential for the consolidation of the concept of "sustainable development" and are today the main references for international negotiations. This was the beginning of a new era of the multilateral order for sustainable development. With regard to processes, the Earth Summit displayed broad international understanding on the importance of the multilateral system of the United Nations as a mechanism for solving major global problems, an importance that today, 20 years later, seems to have waned. In addition, Rio 92 paved the way for a new approach to international issues based on a more intense dialogue with non-governmental actors. The engagement of civil society in debates has grown and has since then become increasingly influential in decision-making spheres.

Among the resolutions from that conference, in which area were there no advancements?

Right now there is an assessment being made about the points in which we advanced and where no progress was made and the reasons for this. It is undeniable that the great political commitment reached as an outcome of the Earth Summit did not translate into sufficient political will to enable implementation and the idea of sustainable development is also a concept that is facing serious barriers in its implementation. This is also one of the goals of Rio +20: to understand the obstacles to the implementation of what was decided and devise ways to make the changes necessary to a form of sustainable development that respects the environment, enables social inclusion and economic growth. In each such conference, or better put, "family" of conferences reputed to be related to the environment and development, we have had gains. In 1972 we gained institutionalization and the capacity of states to regulate; in 1992, we gained a challenging concept, the mobilization of civil society and witnessed the globalization of the environmental movement. For example, neither Greenpeace nor the WWF had an office in Brazil, which only happened after the Earth Summit. At Rio +20 the economy is in the limelight -- the economy of inclusion with environmental protection.

What should be the main outcome of Rio +20?

I hope that Rio +20 will constitute a major process for the renewal of the international commitment to sustainable development, but I also hope that the Conference will not solely constitute a reaffirmation of the principles and results of the Earth Summit ‘92. I expect to see concrete decisions that will signal the strengthening of the multilateral system and boost the adoption of sustainable development models in the coming decades. I particularly believe in the construction of Sustainable Development Goals, a set of targets to be achieved universally by all countries, respecting their development and social, economic and environmental levels, and centered around the key themes of the 21st century: energy, water resources, food security, production and consumption, among others. Another expectation is that we will define an instance of governance within the United Nations to provide coordination and coherence to the various sustainable development actions and initiatives, through a Council or the United Nations Forum on Sustainable Development. Moreover, it is important that at Rio +20 decisions be taken to strengthen the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), so that this program may have the autonomy and political and financial structure to tackle the major global challenges in the environmental area.

What is your opinion on the draft text for Rio +20?

The text that is being discussed today is a reflection of the interests, needs, priorities and desires of almost 200 countries. For this very reason it has been accused of lacking focus and ambition. However, there are important consensus elements that should be explored and this is the final stage of the process, when we focus more on what unites us rather than what divides us. If previously we witnessed the resistance of some countries to even discuss some of the main topics on the agenda of negotiations, all countries now seek further consensus on the key Conference issues. It is also important to note the greater discussion and proposals regarding the green economy, the goals of sustainable development and concrete changes in the structures of the United Nations for it to become more consistent with sustainable development. Countries have great expectations in these three aspects because they signal an international understanding regarding what we want for the planet as a response to major global challenges.

How can the business sector and civil society contribute to environmental conservation and sustainable development?

A significant change in the last twenty years has been the way civil society, including the corporate sector, began to influence how the planet is run. Today no one can deny the role of civil society and the business sector in the construction of a new model of development with social inclusion and economic growth, along with the sustainable use and conservation of natural resources. Debates such as those on changes in the patterns of production and consumption necessarily imply a review of business models and their relationships with ecosystems and human rights. Companies also have their distinct expertise in innovative and immediate responses to market changes, and this learning is critical for the present moment. Through its organizations and social movements civil society has advanced in discussions on the three axes of sustainable development, contributing input that governments, attached as they are to the logic of immediate political results and principles of sovereignty, cannot always acquire. All this knowledge is very important in influencing how countries stand in intergovernmental processes which, unfortunately, do not adequately envisage the role of non-governmental actors. This is in itself a goal we have for Rio +20, which it to signal the means and most appropriate ways for civil society to have a decisive participation in multilateral processes. On the other hand, the changes we want will only be possible if also carried out at the level of individual decisions, hence the importance of furthering awareness about planetary citizenship. Another point I would emphasize is the need to talk with mass society. We have some know-how on speaking with civil society, but we have learned almost nothing about convincing consumers, for example, that more insightful choices are necessary to conserve our natural resources, which are ultimately the fundamental condition for being able to develop and grow in the coming years. There is no mass movement to advocate for sustainability. This is a challenge that I draw attention to.

What is the role of the emerging economies like the BRICS in impacts on the environment and in the solutions for environmental issues?

The emerging economies have arisen in a geopolitical and environmental setting that is very different from that in which the current great powers developed and thrived. The means used at that time did not consider the consequences of the development practices adopted in terms of their environmental and social impacts. Today it is no longer possible to think of economic growth without bearing in mind poverty alleviation and environmental conservation. Brazil is a country that has shown in recent years how this can be achieved. We are today the sixth world economy and at the same time we are furthering our fight against poverty and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming, while creating more conservation areas than in previous years. The BRICs have this challenge, to show how to attain progress while keeping that balance and still playing the key role of strengthening multilateralism to promote sustainable development worldwide. Another important issue is the economic importance of funding a new approach to development. What is being discussed today by the development banks in China, Russia and Brazil, is how to set up funds and financial flows that can strengthen South-South cooperation.

How feasible is it to structure the so-called "green economy"? Would a 'blue economy' also be important?

The term "green economy" has been a concept disputed by various political forces and the "color", frankly, is not what matters. You mentioned the blue economy and I imagine it refers to the oceans, to fresh water, so a sustainable economy actually needs to be kaleidoscopic. But I think the word "green" that was tagged to the economy aims to emphasize the importance of the environmental pillar, so that some growth models will not succumb to the temptation of yielding a high social performance but a low environmental one. I think we should not waste so much time over concepts, but move forward toward a pragmatic agenda. The way Brazil sees the green economy is an economic model that is inclusive, with vigorous economic growth that promotes social inclusion in a setting of low carbon emissions and natural resource conservation. Thus, it naturally includes the issue of waters and oceans built into the idea of the "blue economy." The green economy is an idea that needs tools, robust exemption policies for certain supply chains and the removal of incentives from others, for example. In Brazil we have just launched a revolutionary policy in terms of methods and goals, which is the National Policy on Solid Waste. It presupposes the creation of a vigorous and much-needed recycling industry to reuse materials that were previously discarded. The agenda is out there, and this is also the green economy. In general, we know that a green economy should be less carbon intensive and low in the use of scarce, rare or non-renewable raw materials, but the discussion of this idea should be tied to compliance with the characteristics and needs of each country, so that nations can build their models of a green economy in accordance with their national interests, without following a single recipe or model. Similarly, another way of doing this is by reviewing progress yardsticks, so as to have indicators such as a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that also includes aspects related to social inclusion and environmental conservation.

In an approach centered on citizens' access to food, water and energy, how should governments and society regard the environment? What is the solution for the future of the Amazon, Brazil and Latin America?

The issue of "access" is one of the major challenges to sustainable development. Food production, the use of water resources and power generation are major causes of environmental impacts, and enabling the human population on the planet to have access to food, water and energy is one of the main challenges of our age. I firmly believe in the reconciliation of these objectives, but we need political will for this to happen and in this respect Brazil wants to be the protagonist of a development model that promotes economic growth coupled with social inclusion and environmental conservation. The future of our forests and our people, the Amazon, Latin America and the planet is the focus of Rio +20. Brazil is by no means a minor player in this chess game. We hope to build consensus so we can tread paths that will overcome the challenges being posed to us all, without exception, because humanity is one and the deadlocks are upon us on too short a notice and we cannot afford to ignore them. 
Entrevista Ministra Izabella Teixeira
© Martim García Enlarge