Agreement Reached on Weakened Outcome Text as Leaders Arrive for Rio Summit

21 June 2012

Delegates attending informal consultations in the days leading up to the much-anticipated Rio+20 conference have managed to reach consensus on the sensitive language contained in a proposed outcome document for the summit. The document, entitled The Future We Want, is now being forwarded to leaders for approval, as the 20-22 June United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) begins in earnest.

Negotiators have met repeatedly at UN Headquarters in New York over the past several months in what are known as “informal informals,” with the aim of finalising a Rio outcome document that would secure a renewed commitment to sustainable development and help meet new and emerging challenges. But several issues - including many related to trade - proved to be divisive and many doubts have been raised over the possible meaningful outcomes of the meeting. Indeed, some pundits have provoked organisers by questioning whether the meeting will produce an outcome that will make up for the carbon emissions expended by the thousands of participants in getting to Rio and commuting to the Riocentro venue.

Still, Brazil’s facilitators were praised by delegates for their ability to find common ground on a text that, only days earlier, had parties unwilling to commit to a majority of issues. But despite the optimism expressed by several delegates, many critics have panned the document for having purposefully weak language in a desperate effort to reach consensus.

“Nobody in that room adopting the text was happy,” Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s Commissioner for Climate Action, wrote on Twitter. “That’s how weak it is. And they all knew. Disappointing.”

Civil society organisations have similarly lambasted the level of ambition in the final outcome text. Some groups expressed frustration that particular areas that they had hoped would produce tangible outcomes received remarkably weak language and lack reference to key issues. Agriculture and forests, for example, have countries committing to only “reaffirm” previously made commitments and “highlight” uncontroversial needs.

One representative of the Non-governmental Organizations Major Group cautioned during Wednesday’s plenary that the Rio gathering might indeed be another “failed attempt.”

“Just to be clear, NGOs here in Rio in no way endorse this document,” the representative said. “If you adopt the text in its current form, you will fail to secure a future for the coming generations, including your own children.”

Today’s launch of the meeting marks 20 years since the world gathered in Rio and agreed to an ambitious plan of action to tackle human impacts on the environment (Agenda 21), a strong declaration on environment and development, and a set of principles aimed at managing the planet’s forests. The 1992 meeting is also notable for opening the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for signature. But despite being billed as a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity, this year’s meeting is likely to be far more humble in its outcomes.

The current text is being noted by observers as establishing a process for further work on strengthening the role of the UN Environment Programme, establishing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and clarifying the “Means of Implementation,” or, the ways in which outlined goals will be implemented (i.e., financing, technology transfer, capacity building, trade, and registry of commitments). Nonetheless, references to the green economy - originally pegged as one of the primary pillars of the Rio meet - are qualified and rife with weak verbs, such as “encourage” and “acknowledge.”

Trade concerns and the green economy

Trade issues have played a significant role in shaping the Rio discussions. This was most notably seen in the framing of the green economy debate, which has provoked a negative response from some developing countries. Rio+20 regional preparatory meetings as early as October 2011 saw several developing countries lash out at the plans to establish a robust global green economy as a measure that could impede development.

Many developed countries, particularly those in Europe, saw Rio as an ideal venue for helping to create the conditions for ushering in a low-carbon and resource-efficient global green economy, which some studies have estimated would create 15-60 million additional jobs. Key initiatives involved in the plan include the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, introducing environment-related taxes, and placing a higher value on services provided by nature.

But much of the strong language has been dropped from earlier texts after several developing countries expressed their concerns that a green economy would effectively exclude them from trade opportunities by increasing the cost of manufacturing and transportation. Technologically advanced countries would be at a clear advantage under such a scheme, they argued.

Some developing countries also questioned how complementary previously-stated development goals under the WTO’s Doha Round of trade talks - especially with regards to special and differential treatment for developing economies - would be with the implementation of the green economy.

The profile and language of the green economy has thus been lowered in the current text and specific references to trade have been reduced to two paragraphs - down from nine. The two paragraphs, which fall under the Means of Implementation section of the document, reaffirm the importance of trade as an “engine for development and sustained economic growth” and spell out a message to WTO members to “redouble their efforts to achieve an ambitious, balanced and development-oriented conclusion to the Doha Development Agenda.”

The issue of transferring environmentally sound technology and know-how to developing countries is also featured under the section on Means of Implementation. Countries agree on the importance of supporting technology transfer and emphasise the need for appropriate enabling environments for innovation and a facilitation mechanism for promoting such transfer. The section also recognises the need for using space-related science for monitoring and evaluation to make informed sustainable development policymaking decisions.

SDGs on track

As expected, the text being forwarded to leaders contains language supporting the development of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of measurable targets based on an initiative proposed by Colombia and Guatemala that are aimed at promoting sustainable development around the world. Gro Harlem Bruntland, who was instrumental in launching the first Rio Earth Summit, called the section on SDGs the most important section of the document.

The SDGs are designed to provide a concrete approach to making measurable progress toward achieving balanced sustainable socio-economic growth in tandem with sustainable sourcing of natural resources. They have been widely compared to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted in 2000 to help co-ordinate efforts around the world to raise the standard of living of the world’s poorest. The non-binding MDGs have a target end date of 2015, and it is thought that the SDGs will pick up where they left off and address criticism that the original Goals fail to address the role of the environment - particularly climate change - in development.

While the current text does not identify the specific targets that would make up the SDGs, several broad objectives - such as food security, renewable energy, livelihoods, employment, and women’s empowerment - have been suggested by various forums. Officials say the specifics of the SDGs could take up to 18 months to be agreed to.

Some critics have argued that the SDGs pose a threat to the MDGs, with the thought that attention will be shifted away from the original Goals prematurely. The current text addresses this concern, stating that the SDGs “should not divert focus or effort from the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.”

Other issues to watch

A range of other issues are outlined in the 49-page document, with some more likely to produce a tangible outcome than others.  Many observers have noted the language used section aimed at boosting the role of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in managing the world’s environmental issues as promising. The draft says countries are committed to making UNEP the world’s “leading global environmental authority” for setting the global environmental agenda. It establishes a set of eight recommendations for strengthening the UN body and calls on the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution supporting the initiative.

The need to promote sustainable consumption and production was also featured in the document. Countries agreed to text that reaffirms commitments they have made in phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, but uses purposefully weak language to ensure developing countries are not negatively impacted by sweeping measures. “We invite others to consider rationalizing inefficient fossil fuel subsidies by removing market distortions, including restructuring taxation and phasing out harmful subsidies, where they exist, to reflect their environmental impacts, with such policies taking fully into account the specific needs and conditions of developing countries, with the aim of minimizing the possible adverse impacts on their development.”

In addition, the outcome text reaffirms a commitment to eliminate those fisheries subsidies that are responsible for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and overcapacity, while calling for a conclusion of multilateral disciplines on fisheries subsidies in the WTO context.

“Given the state of fisheries resources …we encourage States to eliminate subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing, and to refrain from introducing new such subsidies or from extending or enhancing existing such subsidies.”

The text again noted the need to account for the potential impacts on developing countries, stating that “appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.”

Overall, the text looks carefully at the role of oceans, with countries noting with “concern” the health of oceans and marine biodiversity. It also calls the need to return ocean stocks to sustainable levels “urgent” and calls on countries to develop and implement science based management plans, including by “reducing or suspending fishing catch and effort commensurate with the status of the stock.”

Notably, the document includes a commitment to establishing an Agreement on Marine Biological Diversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by the end of the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly.

Bridges will be publishing a wrap-up report on Rio+20 upon its conclusion. Please visit our website for details.

ICTSD reporting.

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