rio+20 towards and beyond
Reflections on Rio+20: The Glass is Half Full, But Stop Preaching to the Converted
28 August 2012
Many have already expressed their disappointment about the results of the outcome of Rio+20, citing the lack of concrete results and commitments in a document which instead is basically suggestive, recalling and reaffirming past agreements, highlighting a long catalog of pressing issues but without any clear plan of action for doing anything concrete or accelerating progress on previous agreements.
From nothing to something
Nevertheless, it is important to recall that the result of Rio+20 is still significantly more than what many people expected at the outset of the process. This includes the very fact that the meeting was held at all, which some countries did not support. At the beginning, few countries expressed much interest in participating. Some countries insisted on a “short, focused political document,” perhaps imagining about five pages. The amount of time for discussion was deliberately limited, which appeared to some as an attempt to make sure the document stayed short.
Governance and Capacity Group
Then, unexpectedly, there was a surge of interest at the end of 2011, not only among stakeholders, but also governments. The Rio+20 process itself seemed to play some role in fostering this interest. A surprisingly large number of countries responded to the call for statements by 1 November 2011, perhaps following the huge interest by civil society. Many submissions by governments were surprisingly lengthy (including some which had earlier emphasized the need for a short, focused outcome document). The zero draft document, based on these submissions, was much longer than expected - over 20 pages. Then, many countries made a large number of suggestions to the text, which ballooned at one point to over 200 pages, which finally was whittled down to 53 pages. Much of the expanded text focused on specific “thematic issues” which were not envisaged in the original plan for Rio+20, which was to be more narrowly focused focus on the green economy and the institutional framework.
Are we better off with or without Rio+20? Is multilateral diplomacy finished?
The question we need to ask is whether we are better off with or without Rio+20? Some have even suggested that multilateral diplomacy itself - or at least mega-meetings where tens of thousands of people come to participate with the government negotiators - is a waste of time.

I believe that despite its short comings, we are still better off with it. In evaluating Rio+20, it is important to understand that there are a number of positive results, even though it clearly falls far short of global needs. To be sure, these results will take effect gradually over the medium and long run, and they do not address urgent short term problems. Nevertheless, they are still important and will have beneficial effects. Many have already been pointed out by others, but I would like to emphasise a few.

First, it put sustainable development and a whole host of related issues back in the media spotlight. It was a very important event in terms of awareness-raising. To be sure, it probably did not succeed in educating many ordinary people in detail about the details of sustainable development, but the coverage of the Rio+20 event itself may have strengthened the foundation for future awareness raising efforts to some extent, at least. Moreover, awareness was not only raised among civil society, but also, importantly among governments, which were obliged to spend a significant amount of time thinking about these issues, even if what they ultimately decided was far short of what was needed. This may well be important for future efforts.

Second, a number of key concepts and new ideas were put on the table, in particular the idea of a green economy. Even if many governments and other stakeholders were not convinced about the synergies between economy and the environment, the concept has been dramatically introduced into the global discourse. Moreover, many countries which were uncomfortable about an international agreement on the green economy, partly due to suspicions about the motives of the countries promoting the concept, in fact have already been taking significant unilateral actions towards a green economy. In addition, many businesses, and other stakeholders are also already taking action voluntarily.

Third, a number of processes were set in place, including to develop Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as to carry out several institutional reforms such as the creation of a High Level Political Forum for sustainable development, an Ombudsperson for Future Generations, and universal membership in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Sustainable Development Goals in particular are one of the few possible ways to engage governments which are reluctant to commit to concrete action. Moreover, they may serve as an effective way for implementing organisations and other stakeholders to focus and coordinate their action, aside from what governments do or not do. Of course, it is easier for governments to agree to goals in the future rather than action in the present, especially since the goals will be voluntary. But as the goals are institutionalised in various policy processes, and if a mechanism is set up to monitor their progress, there is a reasonable expectation of generating some level of action from governments in the longer term.

Fourth, many countries and other actors such as the World Bank and private companies have pledged significant amounts of new resources and activities, including financial resources, for a variety of initiatives as voluntary commitments.

Fifth, many of the topics listed as “thematic issues” fall between the cracks, and are not dealt with adequately in existing forums, so it was useful for Rio+20 to highlight and bring public attention to them.

Finally, the strong interest displayed by many national governments in the various thematic issues should be viewed in a positive light. It demonstrated that countries want to have a space where these issues and potential solutions can be discussed. The Rio+20 experience also demonstrated that the existing institutional framework is inadequate for discussing these issues, and effectively highlighted the need for the new High Level Political Forum, which countries agreed to create as a replacement for the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD). So even though Rio+20 did not reach any agreement on concrete actions to address these issues, it appears that a stronger and more regular framework for discussing them will be created.

Under the circumstances, one of the most important outcomes to be hoped for from Rio+20 was to try to change the language of how sustainability and development issues are discussed. One of the biggest failures of Rio+20, arguably, was its continued emphasis that “sustained” economic growth remains an important component of sustainable development. It was not changed to “green growth” or even “sustainable growth.” The green economy was highlighted as one “tool” among others. Still, many countries, including some developing countries, have already been implementing major initiatives that could be considered in the spirit of the green economy, even as they opposed a strong international agreement on the concept. In the long run, Rio+20 may be remembered more for helping to promote and inspire these actions as memory of the long list of negative qualifications to the concept that ended up in the text fades over time.

Don’t blame national governments and multilateral negotiations: Stop preaching to the converted
Multilateral diplomacy, mega meetings, and national governments certainly have plenty of shortcomings, but it seems unreasonable to blame them for problems which have more fundamental causes. Other actors should also consider what they could have done better.

One of the biggest problems is that the “civil society” groups attending Rio+20 were mostly talking to each other - preaching to the converted. They were not talking to the people who need to be persuaded, and these people were mostly not at Rio. One of the big potential accomplishments of mega-meetings is to promote public awareness through media attention, but it is not clear to what extent this was accomplished. How many people in the US noticed Rio+20 or understood what it was about? We may be able to observe more progress when central bankers start talking about sustainable development rather than sustainable economic growth. The final meeting in Rio in June attracted some media coverage, but this was too late to mobilise citizens to influence their governments.

It is certainly tempting to give up on national governments altogether after Rio+20, and focus instead on voluntary efforts of interested stakeholders. However, this would be a mistake. While it is fashionable to dismiss governments as losing their power and becoming irrelevant, the reality - as demonstrated at Rio+20 - is that they still play a large role in determining the future of the earth, even if their role seems more part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The fact remains that only national governments have the power to tax, regulate and use coercive power for enforcement. Solving the world’s problems would be much easier if these powers were used more to support sustainable development rather than unsustainable development. Voluntary efforts by stakeholders can only go so far, so it is not wise to give up on national governments and intergovernmental negotiations altogether.

Moreover, it is important to remember that national governments, particularly democracies, generally reflect and represent some balance of views of the citizens of their countries. Politicians must weigh the competing interests and perspectives of their constituents, however imperfectly, and come up with an overall policy. Nobody is ever satisfied with the overall result, but nevertheless, the inconvenient truth is that the decisions of many national governments at Rio+20 to agree to a modest and limited outcome document probably reflected the spectrum of views held by many (though of course not all) of their citizens. So it is not entirely fair to place most of the blame on national governments for the shortcomings of Rio+20.

Therefore, one of the key lessons is that proponents of sustainable development need to work harder to promote it at the national and local levels. At a minimum, it is essential to prioritise efforts to raise public awareness. It is not clear now many ordinary people around the world even knew about Rio+20, or knew specifically what issues were being discussed. And even if they did, it is not at all clear how many people would have supported stronger measures anyway. Many ordinary people are not necessarily persuaded of the value of sustainable development; at least this is what is believed by many politicians in many countries, in the north as well as in the south. Particularly in democratic countries, it is difficult for political leaders to get too far ahead of the views of voters. It is reasonable to conclude that the result of Rio+20 was about as much as political leaders thought their citizens would accept, and that political leaders also believed that the crowd attending Rio+20 was not necessarily reflecting the spectrum of views of the citizens in their respective countries.

In conclusion, Rio+20 achieved a certain success in terms of agenda setting, public awareness, shaping the discourse, and various actions. These achievements are not trivial, particularly in the context of large scale multilateral negotiations, which are typically difficult. Nevertheless, despite this modest progress, there is still much more to be done, particularly in promoting more general public awareness of sustainable development issues. It is not entirely fair to blame national governments and the multilateral negotiation process for these shortcomings, which reflect the larger inability of the sustainable development community to effectively communicate with the broader public globally. In the future, sustainable development proponents need to spend less time preaching to the converted and more time communicating with the general public and policy makers who are not directly involved already in sustainable development issues.

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

Go to top of page