Article first published in Mapping the World, 25/06/2012
The Rio+20 UN Earth Summit ended on Friday, June 22nd with the world leaders approving a 53-page declaration entitled “The Future We Want”. After more than a year of negotiation and a 10-day mega conference involving approximately 45,000 people, the outcome document encourages countries to set global sustainable development goals and other measures to strengthen global environmental management, improve food security, tighten protection the oceans and promote a “green economy”.
The text of the Summit declaration shows a failure of leadership, with political focus attuned to the economic crisis in Europe, the turmoil in the Middle East and the presidential campaign in the United States. With Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron absent, the Summit was clearly "held hostage" by other priorities. Moreover, Brazil - as a hosting country - pushed through the compromise text, thereby avoiding the conflict and chaos that marked the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. However, that also left heads of state and ministers with little but a ceremonial function, wasting an opportunity for political leaders to press for a more ambitious outcome.
The final declaration seems to have no temporal dimension. Although the 1987 Brundtland Report, by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, the outcome document does not introduce any specific deadlines to achieve an alternative pathway to sustainable future. In this regard, the words of Izabella Teixeira, Minister of Environment for Brazil, are instrumental in stressing how the sense of urgency to act now was completely missed during the Rio+20 Summit. In fact, she said “We are looking towards Rio+40 or Rio+60. The number of years doesn”t matter: the important thing is the “plus”. We must keep the message going and promote the dialogue on sustainable development that we started in Rio in 1992”.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio in 1992, was a completely different story compared to the Rio+20 Summit. It was a landmark event which launched “sustainable development” as an internationally accepted concept, based on three pillars: economic, social and environmental. Twenty years ago, the Rio Principles were adopted after marathon negotiating sessions, integrating environmental principles such as precautionary and polluter pays, development principles like the right to development and equity principles like the common but differentiated responsibility. In addition, commitments were made on providing finance and technology transfer to developing countries and the Commission on Sustainable Development was set up to follow through in Rio “92. Last but not least, two important legally binding agreements were opened for signature after the Earth Summit in 1992: the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Negotiations to produce an ambitious declaration for the Rio+20 summit got bogged down with opposing views on four key issues: the “green economy”, the “sustainable development goals” (SDGs), an institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD) and the means of implementation.
“Green Economy”: another way for wealthy nations to impose a “one-model-fits-all” approach?
When the topic was placed on the agenda of Rio+20 as one of two priority issues, few officials of developing countries had knowledge of the meaning of “green economy” in international negotiating terms. Consequently, much of the energy of the process has gone into defining what it is. The final declaration defines “green economy” as “one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development […] that should contribute to eradicating poverty as well as sustained economic growth” (pg. 9).
Developing countries are concerned that the “green economy” will replace sustainable development as the key paradigm in the environment-development nexus, with the loss of the Rio “92 consensus on the three pillars and the international commitment on finance and technology. Furthermore, they are also worried that the term may be misused as grounds for trade protection, loan/aid conditionality and new obligations on developing countries by developed ones. This will be against the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR), which brings equity in the centre of the negotiations. The G77 and China pointed out that all have duty to take action but developed countries (due to their historical responsibility in contributing to much of the pollution, emissions and resource depletion, and to their higher economic standing) have the leading role in reducing their own environmental impact, and in providing finance and technology transfer to developing countries. For this reason, the G77 and China have been reluctant to give high status to “green economy” term, insisting it is one of several tools that can be used to promote sustainable development, and that it should not be used as policy prescription or a new international policy framework.
Although moves to eliminate subsidies on fossil fuels came to naught, nations agreed to think about ways to place a higher value on nature, including alternatives to GDP as a measure of wealth that account more for environmental and social factors, and efforts to assess and pay for “environmental services” provided by nature, such as carbon sequestration and habitat protection.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): one of the key “deliverables” in Rio+20
The main outcome of the conference is a plan to set sustainable development goals (SDGs). This was also a “new issue” proposed last year by the Colombian delegation during the negotiation process and seen by many as a kind of alternative to the “green economy” roadmap.
Developing countries have accepted SDGs both as concept and as an operational tool. However, the G77 and China want the three pillars (economic, social and environment) to be represented in a balanced way in terms of selected goals and they are concerned that the EU will put forward only environmental goals.
Moreover, how the SDGs and the post-Rio+20 process will relate to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the post-2015 development agenda is another issue. In this respect, the “development community” has already started discussion on the follow-up to the MDGs and do not want a decision on SDGs to pre-empt the development agenda.
Negotiators at Rio+20 were unable to agree on themes, which will now be left to an “open working group" of 30 nations to decide upon by September 2013. Two years later, they will be blended with MDGs.
There was frustration that Rio+20 did not do more to guarantee the right of the poor to have clean water, adequate food and modern forms of energy. In addition, due to the strong opposition of the Vatican backed by Russia and nations from the Middle East and Latin America, the text enshrining women”s reproductive rights was removed from the final declaration.
Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development (IFSD)
The lack of strong international institutions dedicated to sustainable development has enable other agendas (such as the one of the World Trade Organization and bilateral trade and investment agreements) to have precedence over the environment and social development.
There is agreement that the Commission on Sustainable Development has been too weak and needs to be transformed in a more powerful institution. In this regard, the EU, Norway and Switzerland proposed the creation of a Sustainable Development Council which meets more regularly and has more resources and authority.
Negotiations on the institutional architecture of sustainable development are still open and the Rio+20 declaration only states that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will get a more secure budget, a broader membership and strong powers to initiate scientific research and coordinate global environment strategies. However, there is an ongoing debate on whether UNEP should become a UN specialized agency (which is strongly advocated by European and African countries) or retain its status as a Programme but be strengthened (which most countries prefer).
The Means of Implementation (MOI)
During the Earth Summit in 1992 developing countries successfully argued that they could switch to environmentally sound development paths only if there was financially and technology-transfer support from developed countries. This has been a highly contested issue in Rio+20. In fact, developing countries wanted a $30bn per year fund to help in the transition to sustainability, but in the midst of a financial crisis in Europe there was a vague promise to enhance funding, without specifying how much and by whom. In this respect, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff said rich nations had not kept Copenhagen promises on "green funding" and so were in no position to criticize others for a lack of ambition.
Civil society groups and scientists are scathing about the summit outcome. Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo called the summit a failure of epic proportions. On the other hand, the strongest initiatives were made outside the negotiating halls, where significant agreements have been struck on investing in public transport, commitments made to green accounting by corporations and strategies agreed by cities and judicial bodies on reducing environmental impacts. In particular, a Peoples” Sustainability Manifesto was launched by global civil society on the final day of the summit, to develop an independent, collective outcome for a sustainable future beyond Rio+20. The manifesto calls for action that “helps move simultaneously towards a more localized socio-economic structure and toward a supra-national mindset that helps us transcend the parochial concerns of a corporate-capitalistic globalization to activate a global citizen movement”.
According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “Rio+20 has given us a unique chance to set a new course that truly balances the imperatives of robust growth and economic development with the social and environmental dimensions of sustainable prosperity and human well-being”. Unfortunately, the reality fell far short of the summit stated aims.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Diplosphere.