Rio +20: Discussing the Earth for Future Generations in the Perennial Country of the Future

Rio +20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which got underway on June 13th in Rio de Janeiro and will continue till the 22nd, has not yet made the headlines of major newspapers.  In The New York Times, most of the coverage has been featured in Energy and Environment (or “green”) blogs and a handful of op-eds. The Guardian has covered the conference, but relegated it the Environment section.   

Rio+20 did not make it onto the agendas of Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel or Vladimir Putin. The apparent lack of full international impact was attenuated by the presence of Wen Jiabao, Manmohan Singh and François Holland who will soon be arriving in Rio. Naturally, the conference is not over and things may yet change as the negotiations evolve.

At the same time, in Brazil, environmental issues are more controversial and central than ever before. Since Marina Silva ran for the presidency with the Green Party and received almost 20% of all valid votes in the 2010 elections – more than any third runner since 1989 – environmental issues have been at the center of many political, economic and energy debates. The controversial Belo Monte dam generated a lot of debate, mobilizing a wide range of groups from actors of the all-mighty Globo to college students. Similarly, the Brazilian Forest Code, a piece of domestic legislation, has remained an enduring source of dispute between the so-called group of “ruralists”, on the one hand, and congressmen associated with social and green movements, on the other, with President Dilma’s pragmatic administration caught in the middle.

Brazil has changed considerably since the 1992 Earth’s Summit.  At the time, it was the world’s eleventh largest economy; now it is the sixth with a larger GDP than countries such as the United Kingdom and Russia. Brazil has achieved its lowest level of income inequality since 1960 (when inequality first began to be measured), with 40 million people having left poverty and entered the new middle class.  According to the well-respected higher education institution, the FGV, by 2014, 60% of the population will be in the middle class, and, according to the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA), by 2016, extreme poverty will be no more in Brazil.

With such economic development, the impact on the environment has been no less impressive. The deforestation of the Amazon is greater than ever, even though the rate of deforestation has decreased since 2008. In fact, the current size of deforestation is 758.4 thousand  km2, an area larger than France and just slightly smaller than Turkey (see this map).

Is it precisely because Brazil is changing at such a rapid pace that environmental issues are becoming central to its politics, while the current economic downturn and looming stagnation in Europe and the United States have ensured that environmental concerns have lost center stage to issues such as jobs and fiscal balance?

If we look at Inglehart’s materialist-postmaterialist value change thesis, it makes sense that the more developed the country becomes, the more likely it is for postmaterial issues to become relevant, especially for upper-income people. Still, Inglehart explains at least part of this value shift through a “socialization hypothesis”, which assumes that values learned early on tend to be relatively resilient over one’s life. Even the staunchest optimist of the “arrival of Brazil’s future” would be hesitant to suggest that these instances of debate around environmental issues reflect a change towards new, postmaterial values. As many others have suggest, this model cannot really account for short-time events that can counterbalance or speed up this shift in values.

Moreover, as Limongi and Cortez argue here, conjuncture evidence can make you miss the forest for the trees, so to speak: Marina’s share of votes, despite being larger than expected, did not change the pattern of the past six Brazialian presidential elections in Brazil which remain a contest between the two main parties, the Workers’ Party (PT) and the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). Furthermore, PT and PSDB hold different positions concerning recent environmental issues (see here for the parties’ positions on environmental conservation in the Amazon and the Forest Code). Perhaps then, the episodic centrality of environmental issues in Brazil is simply generated by big events, such as Rio +20, or is a result of straightforward political competition between the two main parties. At the same time, it would be hard to deny that the green movement has not grown in Brazil since 1992.

Regardless of the driving causes of the environmental debate in Brazil, one cannot but be left disappointed at the low regard shown by many rich countries towards Rio +20. For better or worse, these rich countries lead both the debate and the action concerning the environment, even pushing poor countries towards choices in periods of scarce resources. Now that the tide has (temporarily) turned, rich countries have lost an opportunity to show a less opportunistic commitment to the environment.