rio+20 towards and beyond
A legacy is kept alive - barely
(29 June 2012)
Participants to the Rio+20 conference, which took place in Rio de Janeiro between 20-22 June, are now returning to their respective parts of the world, and with this we are seeing an increasing number of analyses make their rounds on the internet. Some hail the outcome as positive, but the majority of opinions appear to be ones of disappointment. Certainly, the outcome document is characterised by lacking precise dates, timelines and binding commitments. Strong agreements on the two main themes of the conference are also amiss. As a product of the multilateral system, it reaffirms that consensus solutions are, by nature, a product of compromise. From this conference, we therefore cannot expect the transformative reversal of the global trend towards exceeding planetary boundaries, causing irreversible damage to biodiversity, climate and the state of our common natural capital.
Governance and Capacity Group
But was a transformative change to be expected in the first place? The process leading up to Rio+20 did not convince anyone of the likelihood of such an agreement. Even after the preparatory process had concluded, less than half of the proposed text had been agreed upon, and many unsolvable issues remained. The conference’s outcome could instead be seen as a beginning, and the many processes and incremental changes proposed in the outcome document support this fact. These proposed changes include a process to define the sustainable development goals (SDGs) before the 68th UN General Assembly in 2013, tacit agreements on the Green Economy, as well as recognition of the need to go beyond GDP in defining progress. Other small successes include the strengthening of UNEP, providing improved funding as well as universal membership to its Governing Council, and agreements on establishing a High Level Political Forum to supersede the Commission on Sustainable Development at the intergovernmental level.

A last-minute victory for Children and Youth was the initiation of a process to establish a High Level Representative for Future Generations - by means of a report commissioned by the UN Secretary General. There were other successes, such as the reaffirmation of the human right to secure accessible and clean water, acknowledgement of the importance of green jobs, the adoption of the 10-year Framework of Programmes for sustainable consumption and production, as well as the need to proactively address youth employment. But overall, even these small successes were fraught by qualifiers such as ‘as appropriate’, ‘reaffirm’, ‘support’ and ‘encourage’, replacing the stronger language previously seen in earlier drafts of the outcome document. Tools that could effectively aid in transforming our economy towards sustainability, such as a global financial transactions tax, or the phasing-out of fossil fuel subsidies were either completely lacking or barely acknowledged as ‘important’.

For these reasons, a large group of civil society actors returned their UN badges and left the conference stating that Rio+20 had been bought by the corporations effectively hindering a strong outcome, and another initiative produced a petition called The Future We Don’t Want signed by over 1000 organisations, actors and individuals citing the failure of Rio+20 to produce a worthy outcome. There were clear voices being heard criticising the lack of solid science-policy interface, and some observers wondered whether the positions of countries were always based on scientific evidence or whether they were guided by other rationales. The concept of Planetary Boundaries - something that would have been a clear political recognition of the importance of science - disappeared from the final outcome document as well. It is quite clear what caused such a weak outcome. For one, the conference took place in a time characterised by unprecedented financial and economic hardship in the European Union (EU), which hindered many additional commitments to be made for supporting developing countries’ means of implementation. The EU’s calls for concrete targets and timelines therefore lacked the necessary self-commitment and bargaining power needed to convince critical countries. The United States, still an influential actor in the intergovernmental arena, seemed equally constrained due to the upcoming presidential elections, where strong action on behalf of the environment and sustainable development could be criticised by domestic voters. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the current times are characterised by unclear global power relationships. The old leaders are losing their momentum, and the new ones such as the BRICS countries have yet to consolidate their positions. Thus, while we are undeniably all in the same boat, the emerging captains have not taken the helm.

At the same time, other events taking place outside of the immediacy of the conference at RioCentro also serve to remind us that the process of facilitating change is not confined to the intergovernmental arena. The large congregation of people at the Cupula dos Povos, or People’s Summit, who debated the interfaces between land-use, food and biodiversity, marched through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and recently published a collection of Peoples’ Sustainability Treaties are examples of powerful initiatives, which deserve our attention because they are likely to gain momentum if the multilateral system fails to deliver. While the days in Rio de Janeiro certainly provided mixed pictures of successes and failures, civil society should now begin to identify placeholders in the Future We Want that concern their interest and area of expertise. Over the next two years, it will be necessary to keep reminding governments to implement the planned processes, including those necessary to define the SDGs, inform the likely debate on upgrading of UNEP in the next UN General Assembly in the end of 2012, and inform their governments of the most viable form of the planned High Level Political Forum, which is yet to be cemented. Academia and the scientific community should be encouraged to produce more and clearer policy-related arguments for the application of urgent and critical interventions, such as on the abolishment of harmful subsidies and taxation on financial transactions, to name a few.

With all of this said and done the reliance on tacit and incremental measures, as those that could be agreed at Rio+20, are unlikely to bring about the necessary transformational change towards sustainability. More fundamental interventions are needed as well, but these may have only little to do with the intergovernmental arena and could be more intuitively understood and implemented. A helpful reflection here could be one that acknowledges that the human species is an integral part of this planet, and that human dependency on a friendly climate and sustained provision of services and natural resources is unbreakable, no matter the level and extent of sophisticated man-made systems have been created in the course of human development. Such reflections on the inherent relationship between humans and the planet could produce the realisation of the necessity to adopt simpler and less invasive lifestyles. Such change in perception from the bottom-up could complement interventions made at the intergovernmental level, and perhaps make subsequent changes easier and more politically acceptable once Rio+25 draws closer.

*** The contents of this commentary are the opinions of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of IGES.

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