Will Rio+20 be a "point in history"?

June 2011

The once-a-decade fiesta is coming soon. Held every 10 years since 1972, this is the chance for people around the world to come together and openly discuss the relationship between human beings and our global environment. The Stockholm Conference (UN Conference on the Human Environment: UNCED) was held in 1972 with the slogan "Only One Earth." The UNEP Governing Council in 1982 marked the 10-year anniversary of the Stockholm Conference, and then the Rio Summit (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development: UNCED) was convened in 1992, turning into an epoch-making event which resulted in the adoption of key policy documents and action plans such as the "Rio Declaration on Environment and Development", "Agenda 21" and "The Declaration of Forest Principle." The Rio Summit also delivered some significant outcomes which led to the "UN Framework Convention on Climate Change", the "Convention on Biodiversity" and the "United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification". The Johannesburg Summit (World Summit on Sustainable Development: WSSD), held in 2002, reviewed the progress since Rio and participants returned to their home countries with further commitment and motivation, promising to "Making it happen!"

Rio+20 (United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development: UNCSD) will be convened in 2012. The conference will review the progress to date and will try to fill the remaining gaps in actions on sustainable development. Discussions will focus on two themes, namely "green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication" and "institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD). "

Let me simplify the history of trends in the conference themes. At Stockholm, "Environment" was featured for the first time in history. "Development" made its presence felt strongly at the Nairobi Conference, and both "Environment" and "Development" played a role together at Rio. The Johannesburg Summit emphasised the "implementation of concrete actions". Now at Rio+20, "economy" and "governance" are the focus measures to realise sustainable development. From abstract to concrete, from concepts to measures, these decadal steps seem to be making gradual but steady progress.

Tangible miles tones in des igning and implementing global governance for sustainability can be seen in the establishment of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) which were the outcomes of the Stockholm Conference and the Rio Summit respectively. The current discussion on IFSD is to reconsider the institutional framework, such as UNEP, CSD and other relevant institutional arrangements, which are not functioning properly after 20-40 years. Rio+20 can be an opportunity to discuss an appropriate institutional framework to effectively address this global sustainability issue. The success of Rio+20 should be judged by its tangible delivery, not just by the simple adoption of "a focused political document." At Rio+20, an agreement on a blueprint of global governance mechanism for sustainable development should be made by overcoming a number of confrontations and differences in positions. This is what will further distinguish Rio+20 from a mere decadal fiesta.

The "Stockholm Declaration" stipulated that it was the responsibility of both developed and developing countries to make "common efforts" towards conservation and sustainable use of global environment and resources. However this was modified to "common but differentiated responsibility" in the "Rio Declaration." The global economic centre is shifting from the G8 to the G20, as are the GHG emissions from each country. Under these circumstances, responsibility issues, in particular for the emerging economies, should be widely discussed in relation to the discussion of IFSD. It is also important how you visualise the relationship between the three pillars of sustainable development - environment, society and economy. When you hear the words "they are inter-dependent, therefore integration and coordination are necessary," isn't it more likely that you imagine a venn diagram in your mind with three circles of the same size overlapping with each other? For IFSD discussions, UNEP drew a figure with environment as the foundation for the other two pillars (economic and social).

"A point has been reached in history..." This is how the 6th Paragraph of the Stockholm Declaration begins. It has been 40 years since then. Personally, I do not see any pillars but rather three concentric circles (economy ⊂ society ⊂ environment). There is an environmental boundary given as a finite planet where diverse living things, including humans, exist and subsequently, human beings build a society within that boundary. Economy then becomes a subset of social activity. Will Rio+20 be that point in history when we start building an old but new socio-economic structure based on sustainable use of ecological services?

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