The UN Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, is over. But what has been achieved? What could have been better? Progressio Ireland takes a look at the outcomes and shortcomings in the following critical analysis.
Rio+20 drew to a close on 22nd June, and the draft text was adopted by all UNCSD delegates. Brazil, the host country, developed the draft and facilitated three days of discussions where delegates were encouraged to suggest changes to the draft in order to reach an agreement.
Expectations for the adoption of hard policy agreements or commitments in the outcome text were low from the start, and few people envisaged a ground breaking outcome with the same ambition as the original Rio conference in 1992. It appears that the critics of Rio+20 may have been correct, and despite the grandiose nature of the conference, the outcome text is indeed weak, and falls short in several areas. The negotiations were described as a “colossal waste of time”, and the outcome text itself was hailed as “disappointing” and “a suicide note” by various attendees. Rather than pushing for strong commitments, delegates at the conference seem to have taken the easy way out by simply accepting the draft text and declaring the conference a ‘success’.
- The text is very clearly lacking in ambition, urgency or commitment, and there is very little that is actually new. A significant portion repeats and reiterates promises made at previous Earth Summits, using equally vague and non-committal language, clearly aimed at pleasing everyone and avoiding arguments and lengthy deliberations between delegates.
- The lack of high level representation from some of the world’s most influential countries was also disappointing, with leaders like Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel and our own Enda Kenny failing to attend, despite the efforts of lobby groups. It is probable that this hampered efforts to push for stronger commitments.
- International negotiations are often perceived, especially by developing countries, as being short on delivery, and Rio+20 appears to be no exception. There is no mention of implementation measures, and it seems that all decisions on how to implement the vague policy measures are to be left to individual governments to determine and interpret as they wish.
- Financing for implementing change has also been omitted from the text. This poses a particular problem for developing countries that do not have the funds needed to kickstart a move to sustainable development. These countries argue vehemently that the Common but Differentiated Responsibility Principle (agreed at Rio 1992) should apply here, meaning that developed nations have a responsibility to assist developing nations in development efforts, but in sustainable patterns. However, in the midst of a global economic crisis, governments in the developed North are unlikely to commit to any policies which require them to funnel more money into ODA or other development projects.
- Once again, the text calls for voluntary commitments for action only, without any mention of legally binding commitments. This is particularly important in the case of private companies. Private companies must be regulated to make sure that their practices are in line with ‘green economy’ policies, but the draft text uses weak phrasing to portray this, and simply “encourages” private companies to “consider” engaging in responsible business practices and report their sustainability information. Governments may be reluctant to exercise too much control over companies, especially the larger ones, but without private sector compliance, efforts towards achieving a green economy will not succeed.
- The text also mentions the issue of technology, which is an important consideration. While the text states that changing our patterns of consumption and production is essential for achieving sustainability, it seems that this is unlikely to be the main driver for change, and that the answer is more likely to lie with the introduction of clean, environmentally friendly technology. Once again, private companies are likely to lead the way here, as well as the wealthier governments in developed countries, which can afford to spend time and money on the research and development of new technology. The sharing and transfer of this technology is essential for developing countries, and governments must commit to acting upon this, rather than simply being “urged” to do so.
So has Rio+20 actually achieved anything, or was it all a waste of time and money? It has been claimed that Rio+20 may have been held for no reason other than the fact that it was the 20 year anniversary of Rio 1992, and not because there is a new sense of urgency, renewed commitment for real change, or increasing desire to save our planet and people. This may well be true, but despite its obvious shortcomings, there was some success at Rio+20 .
- Perhaps the greatest achievement was that a process was put in place to adopt universally applicable Sustainable Development Goals by 2015, and to involve stakeholders in the process of forming these. No specific goals or possible themes were mentioned at Rio, and it is inevitable that the development of these SDGs will be subject to various political processes, and will not be met without contention from certain parties. However, if the SDGs are set within a strong accountability and monitoring framework, these goals might deliver on the specificity that Rio lacked.
- Also important is the recognition of water as a human right, and the importance and centrality of water to all aspects of development. The text also stresses the need to improve the implementation of integrated water resource management at all levels. This will hopefully be reflected in the SDGs.
- The scale of the challenges that the world faces is well articulated, and, if we are to accept the outcome text at face value, then it seems that delegates agreeing to this text genuinely understand the magnitude of the problems. Whether they choose to implement the policies will demonstrate just how committed they are to solving these problems.
- Although the issue of financing for change was unfortunately omitted from the text, Rio+20 has initiated voluntary financial pledges from various donors, including governments, the private sector, civil society groups, and multilateral development banks. According to the UNCSD website, the amount pledged so far is around $513 billion. These funds are much needed, and hopefully the pledges will not prove to be empty promises.
Minister Phil Hogan’s comment
Ireland’s Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan, the Irish representative at Rio+20, said that some disappointment is “inevitable” when dealing with large-scale conferences like this, and that while some of the outcome text is “less than we might have hoped for”, the document would still be “pivotal” in influencing policy and initiating change. (Download his speech at Rio+20.) Similarly, the UNCSD secretary-general Sha Zukang said, if the outcome text is implemented, it will make a tremendous difference in generating positive global change.
However, real policy change requires more than just writing up a prescription for the ideal world. It is critical that governments spell out, in concrete terms, how they plan to implement the policies and commitments which they agreed to in Rio. We can be certain that the planet will continue on its gradual decline unless the commitments made are actually implemented. At this stage, all governments are undoubtedly well aware of the potential dangers of another 20 years of inaction, and until world leaders attempt to seriously address the world’s most urgent challenges, nothing will change.
Our sustainable future
Ireland has an opportunity to lead the way with this. “Our Sustainable Future”, Ireland’s national sustainable development policy (which Progressio Ireland discussed here) offers a model for how sustainable development policy can be strong and influential. Ireland can be an example of how sustainable development policy can work; by making strong commitments, creating targets and measures for these commitments, and working towards these, in some cases with the best practice of targets and measures enshrined in national legislation. Ireland must act and meet its commitments and its targets, and it must be willing to show other nations how it can work, and the benefits it brings to society.
What is most encouraging is that despite intergovernmental lethargy, the world has not stood still. Civil society groups and NGOs have mobilised together to add their concerns and ideas on global challenges to international debates like Rio+20. Civil society groups have real ground level influence, and if harnessed correctly, these groups have the potential to wield incredible power and bring about more tangible change than a group of high level delegates in a conference room.
To read the updates and comments from out Progressio delegation in Rio go to our blog.
What impact do the decisions made in Rio have on poor and marginalised communities in developing countries? Read this article on the impact on people in Yemen from the Irish Catholic (28/06/2012).