RIO+20: Sticky issues and hope

RIO DE JANEIRO, 14 June 2012 (IRIN) – “The pace is too slow” and “there is a lack of urgency”, grumbled a negotiator as preparatory talks on the final political outcome document limped back into motion on 13 June at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

“We have just a week to go before the conference starts officially [on 20 June],” said Sha Zukang, UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs, and secretary-general of Rio+20. Officials, NGOs and members of other lobby groups have three days in which to work out their differences before heads of state make a final decision on accepting the document. 


Before the last round of talks in New York, in the first week of June 2012, only 6 percent of the text had been agreed upon. This has now jumped to more than 20 percent and many additional paragraphs are close to agreement, according to Ambassador Kim Sook of the Republic of Korea, co-chair of the Preparatory Committee. 

But with less than a week to go, there are still disagreements over the parameters of the main issues on the Rio+20 agenda – the green economy, the institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD), and the more recently introduced sustainable development goals (SDGs). 

Senior officials have been talking about “concrete decisions” and the need to come up with a “binding agreement”. Sha indicated that Rio’s outcome would be about voluntary commitments that countries are willing to make to set themselves on a sustainable development path. 

Tara Rao, the lead author of a paper on a Southern perspective of a green economy for the Danish 92 Group, an association of 22 Danish NGOs, noted: “The day countries’ finance ministers and heads of state participate in these talks… would be an indication that they are serious about commitments. At the moment sustainable development is still seen as an environmental issue, and countries are represented by their environment or foreign affairs ministers.” 

Sustainable development – a term coined by the UN some 20 years ago – means that countries should achieve development and economic growth without compromising the environment or the wellbeing of their people. 

But on the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit, officials at the conference say Rio+20 should be seen as “the beginning of the process to draft a sustainable development pathway for countries”. Besides, Sha pointed out, many issues (such as technology transfer from the developed to the developing world to enable them to become greener) have remained stuck in the UN climate change talks, the last round of which was held in Durban, South Africa, in 2011. Until those were resolved it would be difficult for countries to move forward. 

“Rio+20 is more about aspirations and not actions, as such,” said Saleemul Huq, a climate change scientist at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a UK-based policy think-tank. 

IRIN spoke to NGOs and think-tanks about their sense of unresolved issues, and asked them to list three things that they hoped the world could draw from Rio+20. 

The sticky issues

1) Defining a green economy. “Most would define this as an approach towards the economy that can deliver growth, whilst being socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable,” said Dirk Willem te Velde, head of the International Development Group at the UK think-tank, Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

There are differing views on where to put the emphasis, he said.” Some countries would like to [emphasize] sustainable consumption and resource efficiency, while Korea, China and Denmark put emphasis on industrial policy and green technology, and small island states put it on [building] resilience to environmental shocks.” 

Harjeet Singh, of ActionAid International, said there were fundamental differences between the rich and the poor world on how to implement actions towards achieving a “green economy”. In the developing world, green technology was one of the ways to get onto a sustainable development path, but it needed technology from the developed countries to do this. 

Most of the technology is patented and costs money, and poor countries would like the rich ones to help out. But rich countries argue that most of the technology is in the hands of the private sector and they need to be mobilized. 

2) The institutional framework for sustainable development. This has to do with who or what will ensure that countries follow the new development model. Among the suggestions on the table is the need to upgrade organizations such as the UN Environment Programme into a fully fledged agency like the World Health Organization – with some teeth – said Rao. 

There is also a need to develop a global body, “well-placed to monitor progress on the new Sustainable Development Goals, bringing the economic, social and environmental aspects of development together. It is all about long-term thinking, and how developed countries and international organizations should help low-income countries with appropriate measuring of progress,” said ODI’s te Velde. 

3) Defining SDGs. The debate is around whether SDGs should be phased in once the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) arrives in 2015, or whether it should it be a parallel process. “One element of this complexity is that the MDGs define the relationship between aid donors and recipients, while SDGs are relevant for all countries, including the large number of middle-income countries that were marginal to MDGs,” said Tom Bigg, who is leading the IIED at Rio+20. 

He said there was “real concern” among the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) “that this new focus will shift attention from their urgent and continued development challenges, so finding ways to address these in combination, without weakening the significance of either, is a priority. 

“It will also take several years to translate broad declaratory goals into detailed targets and measures of progress that are useful at global / regional / national / sub-national levels. And agreement to a shared set of limits, and the implicit commitment to greater equity in access to scarce resources is hugely difficult politically, so this isn’t going to be a straightforward process,” he noted.

Three things to hope for

Tom Bigg, IIED 

1. “A sense of changing world order – middle-income countries being much more assertive in setting out what they want from the multilateral system. 

2. “A sense of how much is possible without global consensus – much as in the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), there’s a huge amount that can be learnt from other countries / contexts, and Rio should provide a space in which this kind of learning and sharing can take place. 

3. “A sense of how far there is to go before entrenched drivers of unsustainability are challenged and changed, but also that there’s an agenda for change which can grow in strength and influence, not least because the impacts of unsustainability will increasingly affect us all.” 

Harjeet Singh, Action Aid International

1. “Reaffirm the Rio 1992 principles, such as common but differentiated responsibilities, equity and historical responsibility, which developed countries at UNFCCC are trying hard to throw out of the window. 

2. “Recognize that the current exploitative market-led economic model is affecting all three pillars (social, economic and environmental) of sustainable development, and we need a paradigm shift from the business-as-usual approach and to adopt / strengthen a human-rights-based approach to development. 

3. “Reiterate and remind the rich countries of the responsibility and obligation to provide “means of the implementation” (finance, technology, and capacity building) to the developing countries to adopt a low-carbon pathway to sustainable development and deal with / adapt to the impacts of climate change.” 

Dirk Willem te Velde: 

“To some extent Rio is already a success, as it is helping countries and people to think long-term.” 

1) Realize the threat posed by environmental problems, which will undermine inclusive and sustainable growth. 

2) Begin to formulate SDGs. 

3) Design economic policies that can realize the opportunities of moving towards a new model of inclusive and sustainable growth, e.g. by scaling up payments for ecosystem services in cases where they work. 

Sameer Dossani, Advocacy Coordinator, ActionAid International. 

“At this stage, we have very few expectations in terms of the official outcomes. Most countries seem bent on ensuring that the status quo will continue.” 

”Rio +20 may serve as a kind of wake-up call to citizens, who should be angry that not enough has been done in the 20 years since the first Earth Summit. When citizens start demanding that their governments represent the best interests of everyone on the planet, not just domestic business interests, then we will start to see a change.”

Original article published on IRIN 

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