Critical voices drown out official outcome in Rio

20 August 2012

Following months of informal negotiations and amid lowered expectations, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) drew to a close on 22 June, with civil society groups openly criticising governments for wasting a seldom seen opportunity. But while critics pointed to the need for a tangible outcome at a time when "multilateralism is in crisis," as some put it, others are pointing to new opportunities for progress represented in part by stepped-up engagement by the private sector.

Several months prior the Rio conference, negotiators met repeatedly at UN Headquarters in New York in what are known as "informal informals," with the aim of finalising a UNCSD 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 doubts were repeatedly raised over the possibility of achieving a meaningful outcome. Indeed, heading into the meeting, some pundits provoked organisers by questioning whether the meeting would produce an outcome that would make up for the carbon emissions expended by the thousands of participants in getting to Rio and commuting to the Riocentro venue.

The meeting marked 20 years since the world gathered in Rio and agreed to three key outcomes: 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 two major processes for signature: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); and the UN Convention on Desertification (UNCCD) a few years later. But despite being billed as the next "once-in-a-generation" opportunity, this year's meeting was far more humble in its outcomes.

The UNCSD 20-22 June high-level segment of the event was expected to feature few surprises, as negotiators had already adopted an outcome document - "The Future We Want" - and few expected ministers to re-open issues for negotiation. The final outcome text sparked a strong response from critics over the weakened language that was ultimately used in order for delegates to reach common ground.

Civil society responds

In the weeks leading up to Rio+20, many organisations as well as governments reportedly cut their delegations, in part due to concerns over soaring costs in Rio, and also due to their low expectations with regard to the outcome.

Nonetheless, NGOs had a strong presence in town, particularly at the Cupula dos Povos, or People's Summit, which ran for the full length of the meetings and attempted to capture the voices not formally participating in the process at the official event. Competition between food, fuel, land, and biodiversity were recurring themes at the grassroots summit, where several civil society groups - despite their frustration at the Rio outcome - adopted an approach on the way forward through a global citizen's movement in the form of People's Sustainability Treaties.

In addition to addressing the plenary and participating in the People's Summit, NGOs staged many peaceful protests both at the suburban Riocentro negotiating venue and in the centre of Rio de Janeiro itself. While the strong presence of the Brazilian army and police force gave peace of mind to conference attendees concerned about safety, many complained that it added a feeling of heaviness to the events.

On the negotiations themselves, a group of NGOs released a counter statement as a response to the official outcome document, explaining why the text lays the groundwork for "The Future We Don't Want." The statement was endorsed by more than 1,000 organisations and individuals in just one day. In the negotiations themselves, an NGO representative at the high-level plenary on 20 June notably asked for the phrase "with the full participation of civil society" to be removed from the official outcome document.

"It would be a shame and a waste for you to only come here and sign off a document," the NGO representative told heads of state directly. "We urge you to create new political will that would make us stand and applaud you as our true leaders."

Some civil society groups expressed frustration that particular areas that they had hoped would produce tangible outcomes were acknowledged using remarkably weak language and lacking reference to key issues. Agriculture and forests, for example, have countries committing to only "reaffirm" previously made commitments and "highlight" uncontroversial needs. In terms of specific missed opportunities, some pointed to the lack of action on phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, controlling the high seas, improving women's reproductive health, and mitigating conflict and disasters such as the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

By the last day of the meeting, there was a strong sense of participants losing steam. Delegates milled about the hallways of the Riocentro venue and many left ahead of time, in stark contrast to the frenetic talks going into overtime, for example, in Durban in 2011 and at other major environmental negotiations. Ultimately, heads of state and governments mainly read out prepared statements and did not reopen the outcome document, which was adopted in the form it was forwarded from the technical negotiations.

Connie Hedegaard, the EU's Commissioner for Climate Action, was one of the few major political players who joined the civil society chorus of criticism over the final Rio outcome. "Nobody in that room adopting the text was happy," she wrote on Twitter. "That's how weak it is. And they all knew. Disappointing."

Trade concerns and the green economy

Trade issues played a notable role in shaping the Rio negotiations and, ultimately, the outcome document. This was seen in the framing of the green economy debate, which 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 could create 15-60 million additional jobs. Key initiatives involved in the green economy plan included 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 was dropped from earlier texts after several developing countries expressed concern that a green economy could 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 thus was lowered in the current text and specific references to trade were reduced to two paragraphs - down from nine. The two paragraphs, which fall under the Means of Implementation section of the document, reaffirmed the importance of trade as an "engine for development and sustained economic growth" and spelled 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 agreed on the importance of supporting technology transfer and emphasised 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 move forward, other trade issues acknowledged

As expected, the text forwarded to leaders contained 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. Former Norwegian prime minister 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 make 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 by addressing criticism that the original Goals fail to address the role of the environment - particularly climate change - in development.

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."

The need to promote sustainable consumption and production was also featured in the outcome document. Countries agreed to text that reaffirms commitments they 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," the document reads.

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 section reads.

The text also 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 asks countries to develop and implement science-based management plans that focus on "reducing or suspending fishing catch and effort commensurate with the status of the stock."

Notably, the document includes a commitment to establish 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.

The uncertain road ahead

Despite the widespread disappointment over the lack of commitment demonstrated by the final outcome document, there are a number of coalitions that are already looking to the future and seeing what opportunities can be gleaned from the Rio+20 process.

Trying to focus on the positives, Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition said that Rio+20 had done much to keep the need for marine protection in the political and public consciousness alive.

"Hopefully, we will be able to use that to push - in force - for some real changes over the next coming months and years," Gianni said, adding that his organisation would not be disheartened by the outcome in Brazil. Many others - including government representatives - took a similarly pragmatic approach, looking for the elements of opportunity provided in the outcome document.

The high presence of private sector representatives in Rio - particularly in contrast to Rio '92 - was impossible to ignore. Some observers were quick to point out that if governments are unable or unwilling to take the lead on sustainable development, progressive businesses are poised to fill the gap. Supporters of the business model argue that there are many diverse bottom-up approaches for sustainability - such as public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder forums - that could offer a more constructive path forward than the exchange of political barbs.

Given this mixed framework for the road ahead, governments remain tasked with bringing action from the outcome document forward. Chief among these are the negotiations of the SDGs, which, among other items in the outcome document, have been pushed forward to the 68th UN General Assembly in October 2013. Numerous other actions are also pegged to be carried out at the national level, according to domestic circumstances.

Andrew Aziz
Managing Editor, ICTSD Periodicals and Editor, Bridges Trade BioRes.

George Riddell
Independent Consultant.

Malena Sell
Environment & Natural Resources Senior Programme Officer and Editor, Bridges Trade BioRes, ICTSD.

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