Because the world is facing serious crises in the global environment and economy, much was expected of the recent Rio+20 Summit. Thus there was deep public disappointment that the hundred heads of government and state who came to Rio de Janeiro were unable to take decisive actions. But it could still succeed through follow-up, says Martin Khor.
There was a sense that the speeches, roundtables and panel discussions at the huge Rio Centro conference centre were part of a ceremonial function for the political leaders, while the tough decisions required by the crises were avoided or postponed. The summit adopted a document, The Future We Want, that contained little that was new in urgent action. It reaffirmed or recalled what had been agreed to 10 or 20 years ago, and directed that the talks continue in the United Nations to strengthen institutions, examine whether to provide finance and technology to developing countries, and establish new sustainable development goals.
* No breakthrough – no failure
Measured against the urgent tasks needed, there were no breakthroughs. But neither was the summit a failure that many portrayed it to be. Faced with the prospect of a real breakdown, the officials representing almost 200 countries pulled back from the brink and worked out last-minute compromises in an agreed text just before their political leaders arrived. Multilateralism in sustainable development was put to the test and survived to live another day.
The outcome document agreed to just about met the minimum requirements of success, given the deteriorating state of international cooperation and the tough battles that developing countries had to fight in the past year to get their points across. It was often a frustrating and seemingly hopeless task. But in the end, the developing countries prevailed on several issues.
At the closing plenary on the night of 22 June, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff hailed the outcome document as a historic step for sustainable development. She said it was a “starting point” and not a “threshold or ceiling” for implementing a path to sustainable development that had to be ambitious and serve as a legacy for future generations.
* Reaffirmation of Rio commitments
The biggest battle in the last week of negotiations in Rio was to get developed countries, especially the United States, to renew the original commitments of the historic 1992 Earth Summit. Without that, the summit would have been a disaster. On almost the last day, the US gave in. The document in paragraph 15 now reaffirms the 1992 Rio principles, including the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR).
The CBDR as well as equity were also “recalled” as the basis of action in the global climate regime, a victory for developing countries since these two principles were notably absent in the decision at last December’s climate talks on starting negotiations on a new Durban Platform.
On technology, the US and others refused to reaffirm their commitment to transfer technology to developing countries, insisting that this be voluntary and on mutually agreed terms. This led to very intense and heated exchanges. But on the last day, the US agreed to language that “recalled” the technology text in the Rio+10 summit in Johannesburg, including technology transfer on favourable terms to developing countries.
On finance for developing countries, the developed countries watered down their previous commitments, refusing to the usual terms “new and additional financial resources. Instead, there were references to getting funds from a “variety of sources” and “new partnerships”, code for the reduced importance (and quantum) in developed countries’ government financing for developing countries.
To save the show, it was agreed that a discussion would start at the UN to look at options for a sustainable development financing strategy. So the UN was asked to prepare a report on a technology-facilitating mechanism for the General Assembly to discuss.
These are very weak actions to be carried forward, and would hardly convince developing countries that they would get the means (finance and technology) to implement new obligations on the environment and sustainable development. Thus the developed countries failed to maintain their level of commitments of 20 or even 10 years ago, whether on sustainable development principles or on finance and technology. Developing countries in effect made significant concessions in accepting the very watered-down language, and this must be seen as their major contribution to an outcome for Rio+20.
* SDGs as new item
A new item is the decision to set up sustainable development goals (SDGs) next year through a 30-member working group in the UN nominated by governments. The topics in the goals would include all three aspects of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental.
Developed countries, especially in Europe, were disappointed that the summit itself did not adopt some specific environmental goals they had put forward. The developing countries argued there was no time to agree on what the initial goals would be, since economic and social goals also had to be included.
Titanic fight over green economy
The document has a large section on the “green economy,” which had absorbed most of the time and energy of the summit’s preparatory meetings in the last two years. Europe in particular was advocating a UN green economy roadmap with specific goals and targets. But developing countries had many concerns, being afraid the “green economy” concept would replace “sustainable development”, that it might justify trade protectionism, and that there would be “green economy” obligations that all countries would have to adhere to.
After a titanic fight lasting over a year, it was finally agreed in Rio that the green economy would be only one of the tools for sustainable development, that it would not be a rigid set of rules, and that it would have a set of 16 principles including avoidance of trade protection and aid conditionality.
It was also agreed that the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) would be strengthened and upgraded, including through universal membership of its governing council and increased financing. But the proposal to convert it to a specialised agency did not succeed.
Potentially the most important decision in Rio was to set up a high-level political forum on sustainable development to replace the existing Commission on Sustainable Development. The forum would provide political leadership, set the agenda and enable regular dialogue, consider new sustainable development challenges, review progress in implementation and improve coordination in the UN system.
* Follow-up is essential
The main problem over the past 20 years has been that while declarations and action plans are made, the institutions to implement them have been too weak. If the new forum can have a wide agenda, a big enough mandate to act, a dynamic process of discussion and decision-making, a strong secretariat and high political backing, then the modest document coming out of the Rio+20 summit can be transformed into a world-changing process and organisation.
The success of any conference is ultimately determined on the strength of the follow-up. Rio+20 could remain a disappointment, or could become the start of something. In that sense Rio+20 has not ended, but only started, as the Brazilian President stated at the summit’s close.
Recommended citation: Khor, Martin (2012) ‘Rio+20 Summit: Disappointment for many. But the South prevailed on many issues’, World Economy & Development In Brief (WDEV), Luxembourg, 26 Jun (www.wdev.eu)
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