Little Hope for Rio+20


From June 20-22, a United Nations conference, called Rio+20, will be held in Rio de Janeiro with the goal of getting the world’s countries to adopt stricter environmental protocols, particularly concerning greenhouse gas emissions. The conference comes amid growing calls from scientists and green activists that global CO2 levels are reaching a “tipping point.” However, these warnings have been overwhelmingly drowned out by the pressures of the continuing economic crisis. As the European Union’s financial stability grows increasingly uncertain and the American recovery faces a slowdown, environmental efforts have been given the cold shoulder.

In the United States, the green industry has gotten quite a bit of bad publicity recently, mostly surrounding the infamous Solyndra loan scandal where the Obama administration gave the go-ahead for a $535 million loan guarantee to the solar panel company, which proceeded to go bankrupt. Accusations of the green industry being the beneficiary of crony capitalism are particularly stinging during these tough economic times. When most businesses are struggling to grow and hire new workers, many people see it as nonsensical for the government to dote on green companies. As such, the potential advances of the Rio +20 conference are preemptively restrained by the focus on fiscal growth in many developed countries.

Proponents of the conference hope for agreements for significant carbon reduction and environmental conservation efforts, but this is medicine that much of the world’s economy simply will not take. The predominant characteristic of the global economy is currently uncertainty, and imposing new environmental regulations on corporations only adds to this problem. Government regulations can find popular support in times of fiscal crisis if they support job growth and/or protect consumers, but regulations that are designed to reduce carbon emissions are unlikely to receive much support simply because they make products more expensive. For example, right now the United States would never impose new gasoline taxes (say, in an attempt to push people away from automobiles and towards mass transit) because gasoline prices are already very high and a significant burden on consumers. The only way that green technology will be able to take the place of fossil fuels is if they become marketable and significantly more efficient, and such developments take much time and research. The green industries need to be able to survive without being propped up by the government through persistent subsidies or stifling penalties on their competition. Therefore, pursuing an “all of the above” energy policy, where both the renewable and non-renewable energy industries are treated equally by the government and where the market decides who wins, is the best bet for the US and can hopefully serve as a model for other developed nations.

However, that still leaves the matter of developing and emerging economies that do not have the infrastructural base for green energy. At Rio+20, any mention of carbon taxes or UN-mandated “cap and trade” will send the developed nations running for the doors. The uncertainty associated with the creation of such international protocols will not be desired by a European Union that does not even know if it can survive and a United States that is starving for jobs, and if the EU and the US (the two largest economies in the world) are not enthusiastically onboard, then the entire conference will be hopelessly hamstrung.