Sustaining joined-up action might well be the true legacy of Rio+20
July 14, 2012 - Wangu Mwangi, Web Editor, Capacity.org
A lot of words have already been written about the recent UN Conference on Sustainable
Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) and what many consider to be a missed opportunity for shaping “the
future we want.” Against the backdrop of daily demonstrations and calls for political will that
accompanied the main event, this brief reflection is an attempt to highlight what I experienced as
a much more positive atmosphere at the many side events I attended. From this vantage point, I will
try to argue, a rather different picture of Rio+20 emerges that perhaps points to the
under-appreciated leveraging power of mega summits.
Like many long time observers of intergovernmental environmental processes – in my case starting in the aftermath of the ‘first’ Rio Summit in 1992 - I have had reason to despair at the tortuous, yet so predictable, cycle that has come to distinguish many negotiation processes. It often begins with a rush of enthusiasm in the early preparatory rounds, driven by the conviction that securing a multilateral stamp of approval will unleash the needed resources and momentum to address yet another issue of global concern. Yet even before the conclusion of the first round of formal negotiations, doubts start to set in as some of the negotiating parties seek to apply the lowest common denominator to crucial pieces of text. This kicks in a long-drawn out process that is never finalized until the very early hours of the final negotiating round.
Brazil’s determination to avoid such last-minute haggling this time round ensured an uncharacteristically early consensus on the outcome text (see brief conference summary below), but this was a pragmatic move that did not deliver the strong political message that many were hoping for. And yet - and this was the interesting feature of Rio+20 – the relatively weak text did not really seem to halt the momentum of the substantive discussions and networking that was going on outside the main negotiating rooms.
“Business as unusual”
I was part of a team reporting on discussions at the Rio Conventions Pavilion, a major conference in its own right, with 40 panel sessions held over ten days, each covering a specific theme – from sustainable land management, oceans and gender to sustainable cities [the final report and analysis is available at http://www.iisd.ca/download/pdf/sd/ymbvol200num10e.pdf] . Held parallel to major environmental negotiations since 2010, the Pavilion is an initiative of the three secretariats responsible for implementing the multilateral environmental agreements that emerged out of the first Rio Summit in 1992 – the Biodiversity, Climate Change and Desertification Conventions respectively. The objective is to demonstrate good practice on the ground in order to encourage joint action and enhanced synergies in implementation programmes. One of the many examples of the interesting dynamics at the Summit was the discussion on the green economy. As negotiators in the main conference rooms across the road failed to reach agreement even on a definition of the term, Mozambique’s President was launching his country’s green economy roadmap to much fanfare at the Pavilion, flanked by two of the country’s main partners, the WWF and the African Development Bank. This was evidence that “business as unusual” was taking place, a term that was used many times at the parallel discussions.
For anyone looking for best practice of how to meet development goals while addressing environmental and social concerns, there were plenty of other examples on offer. One of the initiatives that stood out for me was a presentation by Conservative International on its collaboration with Starbucks to build capacity for sustainable coffee production by local communities that works because it is driven not by philanthropy, but by accommodating the self interest of all the actors along the business value chain. Another inspiring presentation from the Guatemalan Ministry of Environment explained how it is using seed money from the Global Environment Facility to initiate and scale up community-level poverty reduction programmes that also contribute to sustainable land management, biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation. Given that such projects require careful evaluation of the many social, environmental and economic trade-offs, many sessions explored best practice in applying ecosystem-based approaches to sustainable development (the Convention on Biological Diversity Secretariat has created a database with over 600 case studies of ecosystem-based projects and activities around the world).
Like the hundreds of other side events taking place at the main Rio+20 venue, the discussions at the Rio Conventions Pavilion showed the determination of convenors and participants to achieve a concrete outcome at Rio. This spirit was probably best demonstrated during Business Day, where CEOs of leading global companies and business associations repeatedly criticized governments for being “ behind the curve,” in creating a regulatory framework for sustainable development. Some speakers even explicitly urged negotiators not to “weaken” language requiring businesses to report on their contribution to sustainability. While some civil society stakeholders were dismayed about the overt ‘business influence’ at Rio, it is difficult not to see this strong participation as a success, given the role of the private sector in sustainable development, both in terms of technological innovation and funding. A key outcome of Business Day was announcement of the Natural Capital Declaration that encourages signatories (both companies and governments) to account for environmental externalities in their financial reporting, with the target of securing 50 private sector and 50 government signatories by the end of the meeting.
Show me the money
The Natural Capital Declaration was just one of 700 Voluntary Commitments announced in Rio – many bringing together governmental, non-governmental and private sector interests - to address specific aspects of the transition to a more sustainable development. One could argue that this broad-based mobilisation was the real story of Rio+20. Even in the area of financing for the many new initiatives proposed, there appeared to be no shortage of deep pockets as the commitments represent “…more than $500 billion in actions towards sustainable development, ” according to the Rio+20 Secretariat. The Secretariat lists some of the specific targets announced in the commitments as: planting 100 million trees by 2017; greening 10,000 square km of desert; saving 1 Megawatt-hour of electricity per day; empowering 5,000 women entrepreneurs in green economy businesses in Africa; establishing a Masters programme on sustainable development practice; developing an Environmental Purchasing Policy and Waste Minimization & Management strategy; recycling 800,000 tons per year of PVC by 2020 (for the full list of all registered commitments, please click here.)
Let’s hope that these commitments will succeed in pointing the way to new collaborative approaches in sustaining earth’s finite resources and securing our common future.
A short overview of the official Rio+20 outcome
The paragraphs below are excerpted from the final Rio+20 summary report published by IISD Reporting Services
During their ten days in Rio, government delegations concluded the negotiations on the Rio outcome document, titled “The Future We Want.” Representatives from 191 UN member states and observers, including 79 Heads of State or Government, addressed the general debate, and approximately 44,000 badges were issued for official meetings, a Rio+20 Partnerships Forum, Sustainable Development Dialogues, SD-Learning and an estimated 500 side events in RioCentro, the venue for the Conference itself.
In closing the Conference, UNCSD President Dilma Rousseff (Brazil) stressed that Rio+20 was the most participatory conference in history and was a “global expression of democracy.” Taking place in parallel to the official events, approximately 3,000 unofficial events were organized throughout Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Governments and the Rio Conventions organized Pavilions showcasing their experiences and best practices, and the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development, a Global Town Hall, a People’s Summit, the World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability and spontaneous street actions were just a few of the many events around the historic city of Rio de Janeiro, discussing the Rio+20 themes and the broader requirements for sustainable development implementation.
The agreement adopted in Rio calls for the UN General Assembly (UNGA), at its next session, to take decisions on, inter alia: designating a body to operationalize the 10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production; determining the modalities for the third international conference on small island developing states, which is to convene in 2014; identifying the format and organizational aspects of the high-level forum, which is to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development; strengthening the UN Environment Programme (UNEP); constituting a working group to develop global sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be agreed by UNGA; establishing an intergovernmental process under UNGA to prepare a report proposing options on an effective sustainable development financing strategy; and considering a set of recommendations from the Secretary-General for a facilitation mechanism that promotes the development, transfer and dissemination of clean and environmentally sound technologies.
In addition, the UNGA is called on to take a decision in two years on the development of an international instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) regarding marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Furthermore, the UN Statistical Commission is called on to launch a programme of work on broader measures to complement gross domestic product, and the UN system is encouraged, as appropriate, to support industry, interested governments and relevant stakeholders in developing models for best practice and facilitate action for the integration of sustainability reporting. The text also includes text on trade-distorting subsidies, fisheries and fossil fuel subsidies.
The full Earth Negotiations Bulletin report and analysis can be downloaded at