Rio+20 Was Not All In Vain

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By Martin Khor*
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

GENEVA (IDN) - The UN Conference on Sustainable Development, more popularly known as Rio+20, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit (concluded on June 22) with expressions of deep disappointment from broad sections of members of the media and the environmental NGOs, who saw little new commitments to action in the final text that was adopted by the heads of states and governments and their senior officials.

But there are grounds for a more positive assessment of Rio+20. It achieved an agreed outcome, something that is increasingly rare in multilateral high-level meetings. It managed (just) to reaffirm previous understandings on sustainable development, thus maintaining the foundations for international cooperation.

And it directed the diplomats and officials of all countries to continue negotiating and come up with solutions to important unresolved issues within one to two years – including on sustainable development goals, finance and technology, and a new political forum on sustainable development.

The summit adopted a 53-page document, "The Future We Want". It reaffirmed or recalled what had been agreed to 20 or 10 years ago (at the first Rio Summit that produced the Rio Principles and Agenda 21, and the Johannesburg Summit that marked the 10th anniversary and produced a Plan of Implementation respectively). And it directed that the talks continue in the United Nations (in New York) to strengthen sustainable development and environment institutions, examine how and whether to provide finance and technology to developing countries, and establish new sustainable development goals.

Measured against the urgent tasks needed, there were no breakthroughs. But neither was the summit the failure that many portrayed it to be.

Sustainable Development Goals

A new item in the Rio+20 outcome with considerable follow-up implication, is the decision to formulate sustainable development goals (SDGs). This will be done in the next year through a 30-member working group under the UN General Assembly, nominated by governments through the UN regional groups. The UN Secretary General is asked to provide initial inputs and the UN agencies’ support to the working group, which will submit a report on the goals to the General Assembly next year for its action.

Establishing SDGs was not on the original mandate of Rio+20 topics but entered the process in late 2011 through a proposal of Colombia and a few other countries. It developed increasing support as a concrete "deliverable" for the summit and as a kind of replacement for the controversial Green Economy issue. Although establishing SDGs turned out to be a complex exercise, at least the concept of sustainable development was an accepted and comfortable one, unlike the green economy.

The developing countries during the negotiations fought for several things: to have a good definition of SDGs, to ensure that there is a balanced approach among the three pillars (economic, social, environmental) of sustainable development in the selected goals, that the SDGs be formulated by an inter-governmental process and not “dropped” on the governments by the UN Secretary General or UN-chosen experts (as in the case of the Millennium Development Goals), and that the SDG process should interact with and not replace the separate process of the UN’s post-2015 development agenda after the expiry of the MDGs.   They also preferred that no specific SDGs be named in Rio, in order not to pre-empt the approach of having goals balanced from all three pillars.

The developing countries’ positions prevailed on all these aspects. In the final text, the SDGs are to be based on Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Action, respect the Rio principles, build on commitments already made, incorporate the three dimensions of sustainable development. They should be coherent with the and integrated in the UN development agenda beyond 2015 and should not divert effort from the MDGs. The goals should address priority areas, guided by the outcome document.

Developed countries, especially the European Union (EU), were disappointed that the summit itself did not adopt five specific goals that were mainly environmental in nature, that they put forward as initial and priority SDGs. The developing countries argued there was no time to agree on what the initial goals would be, since economic and social goals also have to be included.

The formulation of the SDGs, and their interface with the post-2015 development agenda, will be one of the most important follow-up actions initiated by the Rio+20 summit.

The Green Economy

The outcome document has a large section on the "green economy". This topic had in fact absorbed most of the time and energy of the summit's preparatory meetings over the last two years. “The green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” had been included as one of the two specific themes of the conference (the other being institutional framework for sustainable development).

However, it soon became the centre of contention and controversy, partly because it was a new subject for multilateral negotiations that could potentially result in new obligations on states, and partly because the subject was being negotiated in the home of “sustainable development” and there was confusion about its inter-face conceptually and practically with sustainable development.

From the early stages of negotiations, some developed countries, especially the EU, were advocating having an action-oriented and norm-related approach to the Green Economy. The EU proposed that Rio+20 formulate a UN green economy roadmap with several specific goals, targets and deadlines for issues such as water, forests, agriculture and oceans.

This was seen as going too far with the concept by many developing countries. They had many concerns, including that the "green economy" concept would replace "sustainable development"; that it may be used to justify trade protectionism against developing-country products and new conditionality for aid and finance; that it would be used to create new markets based on economic valuation of nature’s functions, offsets and payment for environment services and thus lead to commodification of nature.

There was also concern that there would be a one-size-fits-all approach as well as "green economy" obligations that all countries have to adhere to, without developing counties getting the corresponding means of implementation (finance and technology) from developed countries.

After a long fight lasting over a year, it was finally agreed in the Rio+20 text that the green economy is one of the important tools for achieving sustainable development, providing options but not a rigid set of rules. The green economy policies should be guided by the Rio principles.

The text also contains 16 points of what the green economy should be or not be. It should respect national sovereignty, promote inclusive growth, strengthen finance and technology transfer to developing countries, avoid aid and finance conditionalities, not be used for trade protectionism, help close North-South technology gaps, address poverty and inequalities and promote sustainable consumption and production patterns.

The main action points on the green economy are quite mild (Para 66). The UN system and relevant donors are asked to coordinate and provide information on matching interested countries with partners to provide requested support; to provide toolboxes and best practices and good examples in applying green economy policies, methodologies for evaluating policies, and platforms that can contribute.

Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development (IFSD)

The IFSD was one of the two major themes of Rio+20 and the chapter on it could prove to have the most significant results. It is widely recognized that while Rio 1992 was a success, its follow up mechanisms for implementation were weak. The main body for follow up was the new Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD); it worked well as a convening body for Ministers and senior officials in its initial years, but had lacklustre results in recent years. The problem was mainly in design: it meets only two to three weeks in a year and has a small secretariat within the UN department on economic and social affairs, yet it has a large agenda of tasks and issues to fulfil.

Potentially, the most important decision in Rio was to set up a high-level political forum on sustainable development, to replace the CSD. The idea of a Forum had been originally proposed by the G77 and China, while others, mainly the European countries, proposed transforming the CSD into a new Sustainable Development Council. The final text agreed to establishing the Forum; the text also incorporated some of the ideas proposed for the Council.

According to the text, the high-level forum could have 12 functions, including to provide political leadership and recommendations for sustainable development, provide a platform for regular dialogue and agenda setting, have set the agenda and enable regular dialogue, consider new sustainable development challenges, review progress in implementation and improve coordination in the UN system, have an action-oriented agenda for new and emerging challenges, follow up on implementing all the sustainable development commitments, coordinate within the UN system, promote system-wide coherence and coordination of sustainable development policies.

As the details have not been sorted out, Rio+20 decided to launch an intergovernmental process under the General Assembly to define the forum’s format and organizational aspects, aimed at convening the first forum at the General Assembly’s 68th session in 2013.

A key issue is the extent to which this forum will only be a series of annual meetings and roundtables (during the time of the annual General Assembly session) or whether it will have a strong structure that addresses the social, economic and environmental dimensions, that meets regularly throughout the year and that is serviced by a strong enough Secretariat.

If the new forum can have a wide agenda, a big enough mandate to act, a dynamic process of discussion and decision making, a strong secretariat and high political backing, then the modest document coming out of the Rio+20 summit can be transformed into a world-changing process and organisation.

Rio+20 also agreed that the UN Environment Programme would be strengthened and upgraded, including through establishing universal membership of its governing council and increased, stable and adequate financing, and strengthening its regional presence. It is the only place in the text in which increased and adequate funding is committed. The General Assembly is invited to adopt a resolution on UNEP to this effect.

This decision was a great disappointment to European countries which were strongly advocating that UNEP be transformed into a UN specialized agency. This was also supported by the African Group. However this proposal was not acceptable to other major developed countries including the US, Japan and Russia, or by many developing countries, each for their own reasons.

Agreed outcome

While the Rio+20 Summit fell short of justified expectations that it would be a landmark in addressing the world's current serious crises, it was fortunate that there was even an agreed outcome at all. The present atmosphere of international cooperation has deteriorated recently, as can be seen in the impasse in the WTO's Doha negotiations, the failure of the Copenhagen climate conference, and the uncertainties surrounding the UNCTAD XIII conference. Rio+20 also became a victim of the reduced commitments by developed countries to support the developing countries in their development quest.

Despite some setbacks, the developing countries managed to secure many of their key positions and demands made in the negotiations. It says a lot about the current international situation that a reaffirmation of principles made 10 and 20 years ago is a sign of success.

With the outcome in Rio, the multilateral system in sustainable development lives to fight another day. The mandated actions in the Rio+20 text, on the high-level forum on sustainable development, the finance strategy and technology facilitating mechanism, and the sustainable development goals, point to more and potentially important work in the year ahead at the UN. The success of any conference is ultimately determined on the strength of the follow-up. Rio+20 could remain a disappointment, or could become the start of something significant. In that sense, Rio+20 has not ended, but only started, as the Brazilian President stated at the summit's closure.

*Martin Khor is executive director of the South Centre and can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . This is an abridged version of the analysis carried by the South Centre's South Bulletin 64. [IDN-InDepthNews – July 09, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Picture: Martin Khor | Credit: iisd.ca

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