Special meeting report

4 July 2012


The lack of actionable outcomes from UNCSD was widely panned by the media and civil society. But some conference-goers say the future of sustainable development is not bleak.
Following months of informal negotiations amid lowered expectations, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) drew to a close on 22 June, with the common sentiment at the end of the event's high-level segment being one of a wasted chance. The result drew a critical response from many non-governmental organisations, which particularly stressed the opportunity costs associated with organising such a large and expensive meeting at a time when "multilateralism is in crisis," as some put it.
The meeting marked 20 years since the world gathered in Rio and agreed to an ambitious plan of action to tackle human impacts on the environment amidst development (Agenda 21). 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 was far more humble in its outcomes.

The weakened language of the final outcome document - entitled "The Future We Want" - sparked the release of a counter statement from NGOs on why the text lays the groundwork for "The Future We Don't Want." In terms of specific missed opportunities, NGOs 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.

NGOs had a strong presence in town, particularly at the People's Summit, which 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 adopted the People's Sustainability Treaties - a global citizen's movement - as a way forward.

By the last day of the meeting, there was a strong sense of participants losing steam. Ultimately, heads of state and governments mainly read from prepared statements and did not reopen the outcome document, which was adopted in the form it was forwarded from the technical negotiations.

Trade concerns and the green economy

Trade issues played a significant role in shaping the Rio discussions. This was most notably seen in the framing of the green economy debate, which provoked a negative response from some developing countries. References to the green economy in the outcome document - originally pegged as one of the primary pillars of the Rio meeting - are qualified and rife with weak verbs, such as "encourage" and "acknowledge."

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. But much of the strong language had 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.

Specific references to trade had been reduced to two paragraphs, down from nine. The two paragraphs, which fall under the Means of Implementation section of the document, 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 agreed on the importance of supporting technology transfer and the need for appropriate enabling environments for innovation.

SDGs on track

The Rio outcome text contains language supporting the development of 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).

The SDGs are designed 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). It is thought that the SDGs will pick up where the MDGs will leave off in 2015 and address criticism that the original Goals fail to encompass the role of the environment, particularly climate change, in development.

While the 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. 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.

Other notable outcomes

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 at boosting the role of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in managing the world's environmental issues as promising.

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 used purposefully weak language to ensure developing countries are not negatively impacted by sweeping measures.

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.

Who will take the driver's seat?

Some observers were quick to suggest that if governments are unable or unwilling to take the lead on sustainable development, progressive businesses will have to take up the challenge. They argue that there are many diverse bottom-up approaches for sustainability - such as public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder forums - that offer a more constructive path forward than playing the blame-game.

In a similar vein, Corporate Social Responsibility was debated at length in Rio, including at many well-staged events organised by the private sector. However, bringing the discussion back full circle, many businesses called for a stable regulatory framework and a carbon price in order to be able to operate in a more predictable marketplace and to mobilise their best efforts.

Given this mixed framework on 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.

Authors: Andrew Aziz, Managing Editor, ICTSD Periodicals and Editor, Bridges Trade BioRes; George Riddell, Independent Consultant and  Malena Sell, Senior Programme Officer, Environment & Natural Resources

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