Rio+20: Impacts and Ways ForwardJanuary 14, 2013 By Derric Tay
After last spring’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development, popularly known as Rio+20, the Wilson Center’s Paulo Sotero said there was “a sense of frustration over the lack of new commitments from leading countries and participants.” Where do things stand and where are they headed, in light of these disappointments? Were there any silver linings? [Video Below]
On the main attraction – large-scale agreements – some minimal progress was achieved, such as reaffirmation of goals and a proposal of timelines, but otherwise, there were no dramatic new developments. Boltz described the preparations leading up to the conference as “flawed,” and he said most of the agreements made just reiterated existing commitments.
On the other hand, reiterating and acknowledging existing goals was important, he said. And side events, including those on population, health, and environment connections, were a great success, producing “over 700 voluntary pledges and over $500 billion in commitments to sustainable development.”
In short, there was less large-scale action and more small-scale progress resulting from this conference. Boltz predicted this might be a sign of things to come: global governance regimes frame common goals, but the actual implementation of those goals is carried out by “coalitions of willing nations, progressive businesses, and engaged public and civil society.”
Reflecting, From A to D
Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, elaborated on that small-scale progress. He noted that his organization had worked to make the summit about implementation by encouraging action not just from national governments but also state and local governments, corporations, and civil society. With thousands of events attended by an immense number of people, Scherr described the conference as “extraordinary,” and highlighted four main takeaways, “from A to D”:
Actions: Like Boltz, Scherr noted the lack of high-profile successes, with major international leaders absent, no treaties signed, no new agencies or funds created, and no creation of a set of sustainable development goals, which Colombia and Brazil were interested in. However, Scherr said he sees greater importance in the implementation and action aspect of Rio+20, rather than any new grand statements. The conference created numerous smaller-scale commitments that could go a long way in fulfilling the “huge unfilled backlog” identified in the UN’s latest Global Environmental Outlook report. With only 4 of 90 tracked commitments seeing progress, actions are worth more than promises, he noted.
Brazil: Looking to raise its profile by hosting Rio+20 in 2012, the World Cup in 2014, and the Summer Olympic Games in 2016, Brazil is “truly emerging as a power on the world stage,” Scherr said. In that sense, the conference was largely successful. While logistics weren’t perfect (transportation between events could have been better, for example), it was generally well-organized, and Brazil was able to forge an agreement and avoid Copenhagen’s failures.
Connectivity: While Rio+20 was perhaps given short shrift by many mainstream media outlets, it was thoroughly reported by more grassroots efforts, including by blogs, on Twitter, and through livestreaming video.
Denial: Despite increasing signs that humanity’s needs are straining natural systems and nearing our planet’s resource capacity, Scherr said that political leaders have focused on immediate political and economic issues. As a result, the outcome document did not reflect those larger natural resource concerns. The Rio+20 summit also failed to capture the public’s attention the way the original 1992 Earth Summit did, he said.
Scherr highlighted the NRDC’s work to create a registry of all the commitments to fulfill sustainable development goals – something he said the UN has a “mandate” to do, but is not. He stressed the need to record and monitor these numerous commitments, and the need for civil society to hold politicians accountable to them.
Rio+20 is a step in the right direction, he said, but there remains a lot of work to be done.
Role of the Private Sector
Michelle Lapinski, director of corporate practices at The Nature Conservancy, turned attention toward the role of business, which had a “really strong presence” at Rio+20, she said – a sharp contrast from the 1992 Earth Summit.
While there are certainly many in the private sector who have no interest in sustainability goals, a substantial enough (and growing) number recognize the need for sustainable business practices and development, Lapinski said. The rise of the concept of “natural capital” and the willingness of businesses to take care of the natural resources they use, are a prelude to cooperation between businesses and other key players (such as governments) in implementing commitments and realizing these goals. There are “enough Fortune 500 companies that have suffered some kind of disruption” to the natural resources and services they depend on, she said, that many are beginning to pay attention.
Many companies proposed substantial commitments at the Corporate Sustainability Forum and the Business Action for Sustainable Development Day, driving home the point that the private sector, as the “primary investor” and “solution provider,” plays a key role in sustainable development, especially as governments are hesitant to act.One key point in implementation, Lapinski said, is the need for scaling up and moving beyond pilot projects. She highlighted the role that social entrepreneurs and the private sector can play in working in advance of government mandates in this respect.
Reid Detchon, vice president for energy and climate at the UN Foundation and executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, discussed the challenge of implementation and the need for political feasibility, as sustainability agreements have no enforcement mechanisms. He discussed the issue of energy in sustainable development as an example.
Sustainable development requires modern energy infrastructure, Detchon noted, which introduces friction in places where the focus is on achieving the basics at the lowest possible cost. To address this challenge, the UN Secretary-General, earlier in the year, created an initiative designed to help increase the ubiquity of modern energy services. The Sustainable Energy for All initiative has three goals: ensure universal access to modern energy services, double the rate of improvements in energy efficiency, and double the share of renewable energy globally. These goals are designed to be achieved in “bite-sized chunks,” Detchon said, such as first by having countries take stock of their energy resources, with the help of international partners. Fifty-five countries have committed to Sustainable Energy for All so far.
Detchon estimates that the total cost of reaching these goals would be around $1.5 trillion per year, which would be hard for the public sector to match alone. But if the private sector is given incentives to invest in these changes, that could a long way, he said. Private commitments are starting to happen, and Detchon showed that a number of entities from across the spectrum – among them the World Bank, Siemens, and the band Linkin Park – have made commitments.
As for next steps, Detchon once again mentioned implementation challenges. Energy progress “isn’t just magic,” he said, and building more sustainable energy will require “concrete partnerships,” new expertise, infrastructure in developing countries, and promises (in the form of commitments) backed up by monitoring.
Overall, we have “agreed to a lot” but “delivered very little” in the past 20 years, Detchon said. Although there is a sense of urgency surrounding sustainability issues, we need to move “from rhetoric to reality.” Perhaps a more environmentally conscious generation of leaders, bringing their values with them into the workforce, will make the difference, he concluded.
Derric Tay is a graduate student in Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University. The Managing the Planet series is a joint series of dialogues organized by the Wilson Center and George Mason University about global environmental challenges.
Sources: UN Environment Programme, UN Foundation.
Photo Credit: Side event at Rio+20, courtesy of C. Schubert/Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security.