Meeting Low Expectations at Rio+20

David Hunter

June 19, 2012

This is not your father’s Earth Summit.  This week’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development is meant to assess how far we’ve come from the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (ambitiously named the Earth Summit).  And the 1992 Earth Summit was ambitious, featuring the largest gathering of world leaders in history as well as thousands of civil society and private sector participants whose presence heralded the emergence of a global environmental movement.  The original Earth Summit endorsed sustainable development as the conceptual framework for the future balancing of environment and development.  It also reshaped international environmental governance, completing binding treaties on climate change and the conservation of biodiversity; the Rio Declaration, with its overarching principles of sustainable development; a set of non-binding forest management principles; Agenda 21, a five-hundred page blueprint for achieving sustainable development; and establishing the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to monitor progress. By any measure the Earth Summit was a major milestone in global environmental diplomacy. 

This week’s Rio+20 Conference arrives with much less ambition and even less optimism.  The Conference is highlighting two areas of general importance to sustainable development:  the institutional framework for sustainable development (governance) and promoting the green economy.  To these, in recent months delegates have added a call for sustainable development goals.  Broad enough to encompass virtually any subject, these three general areas have left governments struggling to focus on outcomes that are both feasible and worthwhile. 

The negotiations have thus far suffered from a desire to say something about everything, while at the same time saying nothing specific about anything.  Before arriving at Rio this week, negotiators had agreed to approximately 70 paragraphs, while nearly 300 more remained bracketed.  Compromise over the most political issues could not be reached until higher-ups arrived together in Rio.  Reports now suggest some progress is being made, and some outcome document will likely emerge.  There is no chance for any binding law to come from the Rio+20 negotiations, but the outcome could still signal important political commitments and establish a framework within the UN for addressing sustainability issues. 

Government delegates generally support strengthening the “institutional framework for sustainable development,” but consensus quickly dissolves over specifically what that entails.  There seems to be support to replace the UN Council on Sustainable Development, but with what?  One proposal would have regular meetings of a ‘high level forum’ to monitor progress and to ensure political support for sustainability issues remains a high priority issue at the UN.  The EU and some other countries have supported proposals for a high level UN representative for future generations, who could also enhance attention on sustainability issues.  The most likely outcome is some institutional initiative that will carry the mantle of sustainability within the UN system, but in a way that has little power beyond report-writing or convening.

The governments are also debating whether and how to strengthen the institutional arrangements for the environmental pillar of sustainability—or more precisely what to do with UNEP.  Two things are clear as we approach the negotiations at Rio+20: we need a strong international environmental institution to address global environmental problems, and even the most ambitious changes being debated at Rio+20 for UNEP will not get us there.  One option is to enlarge the number of countries in UNEP’s governing council, which might provide marginally more political weight behind its decisions.  Alternatively, and more ambitiously, is a proposal to make UNEP a UN specialized agency.  Specialized agencies are autonomous with separate legal personality.  UNEP would no longer report through ECOSOC to the General Assembly, but directly to its Member States, much like the World Bank or the World Trade Organization.  UNEP’s authorities might be strengthened or modified in its organic treaty.  But that’s also the problem:  re-creating UNEP as a specialized agency would require negotiation of its articles in the form of a treaty.  For obvious reasons, the United States opposes that; it cannot foresee the near-term ratification of such a treaty.  And a UNEP without the United States as a party would, almost by definition, be weakened in its efforts to address the world’s growing environmental problems.

Some consensus is emerging that Rio+20 should endorse the development and periodic review of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (patterned loosely after the Millennium Development Goals).  It is unlikely that a full set of SDGs would emerge from Rio+20, but it is possible that the nature of the SDGs could be defined as well as a process for periodic review of progress toward meeting them.  The parties are far apart on who should develop the SDGs (e.g., the Secretary General, the General Assembly, or a special SDG conference) and whether they should be aspirational and voluntary, or quantifiable and verifiable.  Setting the world on a path toward establishing detailed, quantifiable and science-based SDGs with periodic and robust reporting on progress would indeed be something to write home about from Rio, but such an outcome is far from certain.

Perhaps the focus on government outcomes from Rio+20 misses its broader significance.  We are rapidly moving away from a time when what governments do formally is the only–even the primary measure—of progress in global environmental governance.  To be sure, the development of international environmental law requires government consensus, but Rio+20 suffers from the same political deadlock that plagues the international climate talks—and that is not going to change in the next week.  But significant progress can still be made through multistakeholder partnerships and initiatives of willing governments, international organizations, the private sector and civil society organizations.  The resulting “new governance” models do not replace the need for strong international laws, well enforced, but they do provide for diverse pathways of progress in establishing global environmental standards.  The goal should not only be to harness the energy of these participants but also to capture their commitments—and to find new ways of holding multiple stakeholders, not just governments, accountable for sustainability in the future.  If we are successful in pairing such a “cloud of commitments,” as NRDC puts it, with an effective system of accountability, then perhaps we will look backward at Rio+20 as taking the first small steps toward more effective governance for sustainability.

If nothing else, global sustainable development summits, like Rio+20, capture the world’s attention and force us to pay at least some passing attention to sustainable development issues.  At a time when the world faces a Euro crisis, slowing economic growth in both the United States and China, a war in Afghanistan and faltering revolutions in the Middle East, Rio+20 is still managing to shift part of the global conversation to long-term issues of sustainability, at least for a few days.  For that, if for no other reason, we should hope this latest Rio summit is not the last.

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