Rio+20: “the future we want” or “old shoes in a new box”?

By Centre for Law and Environment , on 23 May 2012

The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro, brought sustainable development to the forefront of the international policy agenda. A set of key principles (Rio Declaration on Environment and Development), a blue print for action to implement sustainability (Agenda 21) and three multilateral environmental agreements (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on Combat of Desertification) represent the main outcomes of that conference and have informed the direction of international environmental and climate change law and governance since. Rio also led to the establishment of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to monitor progress on the agreed goals.

But in the years following Rio, governments and policy-makers were left with the much more challenging task of implementing and integrating sustainable development objectives within the decision-making process. While efforts have continued at multiple levels, concrete achievements have been limited. Over time, issues have emerged in two respects. First, sustainable development is  truly difficult to achieve in practice, due to the inherent tension between its constituting ‘interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars — economic development, social development and environmental protection’ (2002 Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development). Second, the international environmental governance framework is ill-equipped to cope with the scale of the change required to adopt a holistic approach to sustainable development, due to ineffective communication, overlapping responsibilities and limited financial resources.

Towards Rio+20: objectives and themes

Against this background and the limited progress of previous summits (such as Rio+10 in Johannesburg), the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development will be held in Rio de Janeiro on 20-22 June 2012, with the objectives of: a) securing renewed political commitment for sustainable development, b) assessing the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and c) addressing new and emerging challenges.

Negotiations are organised around two themes: ‘a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication’ and ‘the institutional framework for sustainable development’.

But what does “green economy” mean? The so-called ‘Zero Draft- The Future We Want’ document, which is the negotiating text on which agreement will be sought, defines “green economy” as ‘a decision-making framework to foster integrated consideration of the three pillars of sustainable development in all relevant domains of public and private decision-making’. This approach aims to provide ‘win-win opportunities to improve the integration of economic development with environmental sustainability to all countries’.

Knowledge sharing, financial support to developing countries, removal of distortive subsides, international collaboration and R&D on green technologies are among the main tools to enable such transition.

The second theme is of a more technical nature. A reform of the institutional architecture is needed to address the lack of effective implementation and poor communication, coordination and policy coherence among international institutions and bodies having direct or indirect mandate on sustainability matters. The main discussion in this area relates to whether to strengthen the CSD and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) or rather replace them with a Sustainable Development Council or a new UN specialised agency, respectively. The final decision will have implications on the structure, mandate, membership and financial regime of the resulting institutions.

The Zero Draft also (re)affirms key priority areas where action is needed, such as: food security, water, energy, forests and biodiversity and sustainable consumption and production.

The uncertain destiny of Rio+20

It is difficult to foresee whether Rio+20 will constitute the long-awaited transition toward sustainable development. The Zero Draft is still under negotiation and positions remain divergent, particularly with respect to the institutional framework and financial obligations. Government representatives have decided to convene another negotiating round at the end of May to seek political convergence on at least 90 per cent of the text before the conference. Rio+20 Secretary-General, Sha Zukang, noted that ‘currently, the negotiating text is a far cry from the ‘focused political document’ called for by the General Assembly.’

At a closer glance, many of the priorities and objectives seem simply repetitions from past documents and the institutional framework appears more focused on structure than it is on functions. Without a substantive agreement on what new functions are required to improve the international framework for sustainable development, any possible reforms are likely to be mute.

The outcome next June will also be influenced by the growing role of emerging economies (Brazil, South Africa, India, China), which are all pursuing very distinct agendas with respect to sustainable development, and by US participation in the Conference, absent in Johannesburg.

We will need to wait and see whether Rio+20 will establish a framework for a real shift toward the ‘future we want’ or just deliver ‘old shoes in a new box’.