RIO+20 : optimistic or are we on the road to failure?

There are mixed comments on the potential of the UN conference on sustainable development (Earth Summit 2012) beginning tomorrow (20th June) in Rio de Janeiro.

Here are some points raised in the latest DEVEX newsletter

Expectations are high for the upcoming U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But with various groups pushing different agendas, pundits fear Rio+20 won’t produce positive results.

Apart from sustainable development, groups have been advocating for women empowerment and food security. Others are concerned about the increasing role of multinationals in U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy For All Initiative.

The draft outcome document, which has been in the works for months now, remains contentious.

African negotiators are working hard for certain paragraphs to remain in the outcome document, such as the transfer of technology to developing countries. The United States, however, is reportedly against it, and insists on “deleting” paragraphs dealing with the topic, a Ghanian negotiator said in an Economic Commission for Africa press release.

Brazil, which now heads the negotiations, is optimistic the outcome document will be finalized before the conference kicks off Wednesday (June 20). But skeptics such as Oxfam International’s Tricia O’ Rourke argue it may just be an agreeable document that is “less likely to deliver sustainable development.”

Is Rio+20 on the road to failure? Thomas Lovejoy, science and public policy professor at George Mason University, seems to think so. But, John Biers of Dow Jones Newswires writes in The Wall Street Journal, Rio+20 supporters can seek some “solace from the past.” The 1992 Rio conference, which was seen as a “triumph for the environment, was initially greeted with plenty of negative headlines, too.”

(extracted from an article by Jenny Lei Ravelo -DEVEX)


More than 130 world leaders are meeting in Rio de Janeiro this week for Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Few experts believe these presidents and prime ministers will come to any groundbreaking international agreements.

It may not matter.

The real progress on the themes of the conference — a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the necessary institutional framework — could happen at the side events, the cocktail parties, even the chance meetings in hotel lobbies. After all, at least 50,000 stakeholders – corporate and civil society leaders, environmentalists and aid officials among them – will also be attending the summit, reinforcing old relationships and forming new ones, as they look for ways to align their interests with the conference goals.

While formulating international agreements is never easy, the current global economic problems are making the attempts at Rio+20, which is scheduled for June 20-22, even tougher than usual. Countries are hoping growth will pull them out of the doldrums, with its unsavory consequences being of secondary concern. Then, there are the distracting effects of debt crises in Europe and national elections in the United States, which many believe are behind U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision not to attend. The U.K.’s David Cameron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Japan’s Yoshihiko Noda have also sent their regrets.

Still, at Rio, the United Nations will push sustainable growth — and its economic, environmental and social benefits — to the forefront of global planning. The declaration world leaders will sign at the end of the three-day gathering is expected to include a call for sustainable development goals that could pave the way toward a global framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015.

Although Rio+20 may not turn out to be the watershed moment for sustainable development that some have hoped it would be, what is ultimately decided at the summit could shape the work of the aid community for years to come.

As expected, it is difficult for nations to cooperate and look for common proposals that will help all, vested and national interests, will come first. Governments are often in power for 5 years -this is too short to plan for environmental and economic sustainability -20 year plans must be in place.

The main difficulties lay in prioritizing among the many issues that countries care about: food security, water, oceans, energy, gender. Some wanted to emphasize the inclusion of groups that haven’t traditionally been given equal power: women, minorities, indigenous peoples and the youth. Others championed the use of technology to hasten progress on all fronts.

And every nation looked out for its own perceived best interests.

“The small island developing states wanted a segment on their particular problem. And so did the mountain states, and the least developed countries,” explains Melinda Kimble, who focused on the draft as part of her work for the U.N. Foundation, where she is senior vice president and oversees the International Bioenergy Initiative.

Developed countries resisted the concept of technology transfer as part of the summit declaration. And even terminology became problematic. Though “green economy” is one of the conference themes, countries continue to argue over its definition. Developing countries seem concerned that green growth is code for protectionism, and may be used to stifle the progress they anxiously need to lift their citizens out of poverty.


The post-MDG agenda

The conference will provide guidance to the United Nations and its partners on a global development accord to succeed the Millennium Declaration.

“The world community seems to be coalescing around the idea of sustainable development goals to follow the MDG-period,” says Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York.

Indeed, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has suggested countries should focus on SDGs in the years ahead. But skepticism remains: Some aid experts are adamant that the MDGs should not be retired before its targets have been reached. Others worry about the burden two sets of development goals would place on the international community. And some simply question whether world leaders will be able to agree on a set of global SDGs that is as ambitious as it is workable.

Ban’s recent appointment of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to a high-level panel that will craft a set of goals for the post-2015 world adds a wrinkle to the hopes for Rio. Will the leaders there set up a negotiating process, or wait for the panel’s draft recommendations, which could come in within a year?

Negotiating processes are expensive and slow, and as Rio+20 reminded us, agonizingly difficult. Keep in mind that the MDGs were not independently negotiated, but pulled from previously agreed-upon goals. Though Rio+20 comes very early in the process of developing the post-MDG agenda, it could play a significant role in it.

What the leaders at Rio+20 ultimately agree on in the outcome document — on energy and water, city planning, unemployment or any of the other issues on the table — will be a concrete step towards “the future we want,” which is the slogan for the summit.

 (These ‘snippets’ were taken from an  article written by Rebecca Webber who is a Devex correspondent based in New York City)

….and from the pre-conference meetings:


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