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

Posted on 29 May 2012
Eduardo Viola - Biólogo
© Foto cedida por el entrevistado
Interview Eduardo Viola, sociologist

Professor of International Relations at the University of Brasilia, sociologist Eduardo Jose Viola, is a naturalised Brazilian of Argentinean birth and declares that he has no great expectations for the upcoming Rio + 20. The new conference will be different from the one of twenty years ago. At that time the countries were willing to debate new global issue, today they are not. The problem is that any advances made would call into question the prevailing economic interests like the use of unsustainable energy matrices, and could threaten current ways of doing business by proposing a new paradigm. That would explain the low level of interest in the Rio + 20 displayed by many heads of state.

Read the main passages of an interview this important intellectual granted to WWF.

What were you engaged in at the time of the Rio 92? Can you remember any episode of the conference that left its mark?

At the time, I was chair professor of Political Sciences and International Relations at the Federal University of Santa Catarina. I took part in and organised academic events parallel to the main Rio 92 conference and I was also in contact with NGOs and kept up a dialogue with them on the issues being discussed by the conference.

Were the interests involved at that time the same as those we are seeing today?

No, the interests were far greater. It was an entirely different moment for the international system. That was the first great conference after the end of the Cold War to debate humanity’s new global issues and it heralded the advent of a far higher level of cooperation within the international system than had been possible before because of the Cold War blockades. In that sense it was a conference the aroused the greatest possible interest. It was in 1992 that the world’s environmental problems first came to the fore, albeit they were attributed a secondary. Nowadays, the climate problem – not all environmental problems – tends to be present in the in the international system but there is a very rigid deadlock preventing any progress. That being so, the conditions are very different; there is really no comparison.

Which countries had the most outstanding participation in the Rio 92? What was the participation of Latin American countries like?

The participation of the central countries is always more important in international systems. At that conference the outstanding performances were those of some of the European countries like Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Holland for example. It is also important to underscore the role of the United States and Japan. Among Latin American countries I would only place Costa Rica on the same level as Brazil. Brazil was noted much more for the fact of hosting the conference and for its president [Fernando] Collor, who had just broken with the conservative environmental policies of previous presidents by appointing Jose Lutzenberger, held by previous governments to be a radical extremist, as his Minister of the Environment [at the time it was a special secretariat attached to the Presidency of the Republic]. We could mention that Colombia in its position as a country with rich biodiversity also played a relevant role in regard to that specific issue.

What was the main legacy resulting from the Rio 92?

The Rio 92’s legacy was having placed environmental issues on the international agenda and that global environmental problems began to be a normal part of it even though they were not at its centre, as the most important points to be addressed. At that time, most countries in the world did not have the slightest interest or concern for environmental problems.

Frustration stems from the notable distance between what was defined at the Rio 92 and what was actually implemented afterwards. In the last 20 years, environmental problems have worsened to an extraordinary degree, and humanity’s progress in addressing such problems has been minimal; in other words, the problems now are far more serious. Over these 20n years, greenhouse gas emissions have been going up at an average 3% a year. The promise that came out of the Rio 92 was that there would be a whole process of reducing the emissions of developed countries and a reduction in the emissions curves of the developing countries. None of that came about, with a few rare exceptions.

In the case of biodiversity, destruction continues at the same rate. What has happened is that there has been an increase in protected areas, generically, that is to say, on paper at least, with some actual implementation. The great biodiversity planet continues to suffer destruction in the same proportions as were taking place 20 years ago. The only difference is that now we have islands and archipelagos of protected areas that are far more extensive than we had before.

What is the problem? Why can we not move forward?

There is no single cause; there are multiple causes. The fundamental factor is contemporary culture, the contemporary value system that guides society and those that govern it. There is exaggerated consumption. The system of values that guides humanity is hyper-materialist and hyper-consuming.

Another problem that was only mentioned at the time but that has now assumed extremely grave proportions is the continual increase in the world population, though today that increase is very heterogeneous; but the world was already overpopulated in 1992 and it is much more so today. Those are factors that will determine the levels of possibility for environmental protection, consumption levels, and the extent of people’s destructiveness, in addition to the factor of the technological intelligence capacity that is available .The more people there are, the more consumption based on backward technology there is, and the more we destroy the planet The question of over-population is highly important and yet nobody is saying so inside the United Nations. Why is that? Because the United Nations is a structure that is ‘politically correct’ where they only speak about what everyone agrees should be spoken about, and about the rest, nothing is said.

There is something very important that must be highlighted: nowadays we have the capitalist system the way it has become, that is, entirely based on making short-term profit. All the incentives in the system are directed at not undertaking any reforms that would lead to long-term sustainability. There is no denying that there is a significant and growing minority of companies that are endeavouring to become sustainable over the long term, but the ground rules of the system are against that because the legitimacy of the directors of big corporations is based on their bringing in profits for shareholders, and doing so in the short -term.
Lastly, without a doubt, there is the current energy model. Humanity has created this huge fixed capital based on coal and petroleum. The bigger problem of the two is coal, because its consumption is increasing much faster than that of petroleum, apart from the fact that it is twice as powerful as petroleum in producing greenhouse effects.

In Brazil the pressures of agricultural commodity production have led to environmental destruction. Is there any way Brazil can increase food production without causing more impacts on the environment?

The Brazilian government, at heart, and agribusiness both have very little interest or very little awareness of how serious the problem really is. What interests them is the short term, the business cycle, getting re-elected. As for the question of increasing food production in Brazil without destroying the environment, we have already had experience with increasing productivity in various areas of agribusiness, but we can increase productivity much further. Also, the regulations could be stricter in the sense of ensuring that the expansion of food production takes place in lands that have already been degraded, without there being any need to expand deforestation or land use conversion in new areas. Food production in Brazil is a question of enhancing productivity, efficiency, the prevalence of the state of law, complying with strict legislation.

What is your opinion regarding the basic text for the Rio+20?

The base text for the conference is a disaster. The current situation of the international system is in no way favourable to making any significant progress at the Rio + 20. In rhetorical terms there may well be various declarations but basically there is no progress. The fundamental problem in the world does not lie in the sphere of the Rio + 20. It lies in climate change, which the Brazilian government made a totally misguided effort to have relegated to a secondary status on the Rio + 20 conference agenda. It has diluted the question of climate change when it should be the central issue; and it has emphasised instead, social inclusion, disregarding a social-political perspective, which would have been correct, and which has much to do with governability in three spheres: global, national and sub-national. In that sense the document is very weak and we should expect any progress.

The most advanced position there is up until now at the Rio + 20, but one that absolutely will not prevail, is that of the European Union: to create a global organisation for the environment. In reality it would have to be something much more profound, but nobody says that out loud; it would be a structure of global governance, so to speak, that would limit national sovereignty much more - a kind of governance structure that would subordinate existing structures like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the World Health Organisation. The most progressive and conscious position is the European Union’s position supported by some African countries, but Brazil is against it because Brazil is still haunted by the ghost, by this paranoia of protectionism, in other words, the proposed organisation could be dangerous for Brazil and the developing countries insofar as it might stimulate protectionism. That notion does not have the least grain of consistency.

Could such an organisation look after the carbon market?

It could, but that would not be all, there are many other things. What is the main problem today, a decisive problem for environmental governability? It is the fragmentation of the system. There are hundreds of conventions and some of them are fundamental, but others are secondary and they hardly articulate with one another at all. The UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme] is a very weak organisation although it does have a relevant function in the scientific sphere. So an organisation with powers equivalent to those of the World Trade Organisation is fundamental for humanity. But that is the Eurpean proposal, Brazil has opposed it because it is a prisoner of its alliance with the BRICS. The country could have a far more progressive position to match the constant declarations of the government that Brazil is an environmental power, but when the time comes to really getting down to defining the issues, where is the supposed environmental power then?

The same thing has happened with the new industrial policy. Even though there is already a law on climate change the new policy on vehicle production for example; it merely promotes the production of vehicles in the country without attributing the least importance to energy efficiency or the creation of a car to run on ethanol only. When an industrial policy does finally appear it is exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.

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

I would say that the BRICS are merely a rhetorical bloc because their interests are different at all levels. Let us consider, more specifically, what the transition to a sustainable low carbon economy would involve for each of them in the light of the problems associated to the Rio + 20. Russia is a country whose economy is based on exporting fossil fuels, highly carbon intense, and with very little concern for the environment. So Russia is a very negative actor in the international system. India is another highly negative actor, a schizophrenic actor. India is always saying that the problems must be solved by others, by those that created them, because she herself will not commit to any goal whatsoever. So the Indian stance today, is very negative, and they are the ones that will suffer most and, indeed, they are already suffering.

The other actors, China, Brazil and South Africa, are ambivalent. Up until four years ago China was a high carbon intensity economy and highly irresponsible in terms of global governability; but it has been changing slowly. The locus of that change has been inside its energy policies because China is now pushing new renewable especially wind energy, photovoltaic energy and third generation nuclear energy. So all of that will enable China to start to flatten its emissions growth curve. She is creating a new low carbon capital accumulation and while that is on the good side, what is the bad side? The bad side is that China continues to maximise the dynamics of the old capital, as an exporter of manufactured goods based carbon intensive practices. That is the measure, more or less, of China’s ambivalence. Another factor, very typical of the non-democratic regime is that China refuses even to discuss anything that involves international verification schemes.

Then we have Brazil, where the key point is the extraordinary reduction in deforestation achieved from 2005 on. Let us say that fact permits Brazil to reduce its emissions and even though we still have deforestation of 6 thousand km² a year, which is disgraceful, it was still the most extraordinary improvement in comparison with the first half of the last decade when 22 thousand km² a year were being deforested in the Amazon. So Brazil has made important progress in this area and that made it possible for very advanced legislation on climate change to go through in 2009. I would even say that the Brazilian legislation on climate change is more advanced than Brazilian society itself. It was the result of a window of opportunity. The only problem with the law is that it is not being implemented. When we do see something decisive like the new industrial policy, we go off in the in the opposite direction to the climate change law. Brazil is an example in the field of emissions stemming from land use conversion (deforestation) but in the field of industry it is entirely stagnated and in the field of energy it may actually be starting to slide backwards if it places excessive importance on investing in the petroleum industry. Up until 2008 South Africa was the most advanced country, the country that most proposed progress in the system of global environmental government. China and Brazil are advancing in that now and we can already state that they have overtaken South Africa. Another point to make is that China and Brazil are far more important than South Africa.

To what extent is it feasible to structure a ‘green economy’? Why ‘blue economy’ is important too?

I would say that what has been most clearly defined in the world, in that regard, is the idea of a low-carbon economy. I think that is a concept that is more consecrated in the scientific system and in the international political system itself. The idea that is emerging now of a green economy is one that may become very important as the process of refining the low-carbon economy concept advances because this latter concept has limitations insofar as it is concentrated on carbon alone and disregards other important cycles like the phosphorus cycle and that of biodiversity. In that sense the green economy could represent grater progress, but it could also be a means of diluting, in the same way that the idea of sustainable development did; everyone was immediately in favour of it because it hardly means anything. Low-carbon is meaningful because it can be measured. I would be in favour of the green economy concept provided that it implied a refinement, a greater sophistication and a more exact definition of the low carbon economy concept.

How can the corporate sector and civil society contribute towards conservation of the environment and sustainable development?

In general terms there is a group of Brazilian companies, some of them quite important ones, that is interested in the Rio + 20 and in seeing Brazil move ahead towards a low-carbon economy with consistent, that is, real sustainability. I would say that most Brazilian companies, however, are not interested or not focused on it at all. The interested companies are those that have already incorporated the issue and are making or have already made changes to their production structures and supply logistics in favour of more low-carbon production processes or that have visionary boards of directors or that are branches of multinational corporations with advanced policies.

In civil society, the environmentalists are certainly interested, many of them ingenuously, because they tend to see the world from the point of view of their own navels, in other words, they lack the powers of analysis to understand the complexities of the international system; the dynamics of power and capabilities involved in the international system. There are some organisations like WWF that have a realistic vision of the world, let us say, they try to change the world in the framework of a realistic vision that is not extremist or radical. Generally speaking, however, the average environmental NGO is ingenuous. Some of the environmental NGOs have a very radical view, which is negative, an anti-capitalist view. That alternative does not exist.
The dilemma humanity faces is whether to carry on with the current form of capitalism which is unsustainable and which is increasingly tending to produce more and more destruction, or to reform capitalism in the direction of what has been called ‘natural capitalism’, a capitalism that re-defines the rules of the financial system to turn it towards long-term profits and a state of equilibrium between the private interests of the company and the universal interests of humanity. Generally speaking, I would say that a fundamental problem that permeates Brazilian education, society and the media is this: peoples discourse is merely opportunistic. There are very few that make profound, scientific analyses of the situation and of reality to descry what is, and what is not possible and on that basis, attribute responsibilities. In that regard, we are being inundated with very low quality information in Brazil and in the world at large.

From the point of view of guaranteeing citizens’ access to food, water, and energy; how should governments and society at large be addressing the environment? What are the solutions for the future, for the Amazon, for Brazil and for Latin America?

The question of others taking over the Amazon is an old and obsolete argument, usually used opportunistically by various sectors. What is taking over the Amazon is international transgression, international organised crime. What is destroying the Amazon is failure to obey the law. There is no chance whatever of a foreign power wanting to take over the Amazon; all of that is the typical paranoia of a totally obsolete national security mentality. The role of the Army has been fundamental in advancing the state of law in the Amazon; patrolling the frontiers, marking the presence of the State and curbing the spread of trans-national crime.

Brazil’s governability over the Amazon region has progressed a lot in the last few years. In Brazilian society at large, the idea that the Amazon might be invaded has lost its impact precisely because there is now awareness of the possibility of Brazil itself exercising control over it; but a lot more needs to be done. Brazil must allocate more funds for the Amazon, for the Armed Forces, Federal Police, Ibama, the Federal Justice system; in other words the Federal State should become a kind of great supporter and promoter of the state of law in the Amazon. What is needed is a great advance in the presence of the state of law, that is, the law needs to be complied with.
Eduardo Viola - Biólogo
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