from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Assessing Rio: Silver Linings to Cloudy Forecast

July 05, 2012

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Ultimately, the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, seemed to fly by with a flurry of coverage but no clear conclusions. Many observers dismissed the final communiqué as “283 paragraphs of fluff” while others found reason for optimism.  What is, however, undeniable is that the world is in no mood for ambitious new multilateral conventions on the global environment.

This skepticism reflects hard experience. The agreements negotiated at the initial Earth Summit in 1992 were hailed as important breakthroughs. But as IIGG’s Global Governance Monitor  points out, these treaties suffer from vast gaps and weaknesses. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, for example, lacks enforcement measures to ensure countries implement its provisions . It contains no target or timetable for individual countries. Agreements to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2000 were almost universally ignored, including by most of the largest emitters of damaging greenhouse gases. Compliance mechanisms that were later incorporated into the Kyoto Protocol would only apply to state parties and include loopholes even for Kyoto Protocol state parties. For its part, the UN Convention on Biodiversity, also established in Rio in 1992, lacks specific prescriptions for action on oceans and marine conservation, a critical oversight.

The outcome document from Rio+20, “The Future We Want,” is rife with platitudes but “remarkable for its absence of figures, dates, and targets.” Despite hopes that the summit would produce commitments to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, for example, efforts to do so were undermined by multiple loopholes. The communiqué’s major achievement was a global pledge to formulate a set of sustainable development goals (or SDGs), slated to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expire in 2015. But such indicators are from being agreed upon and established, let alone implemented.

At bottom, the world seems exhausted by UN mega-meetings, so full of sound and fury but delivering little, and is searching for new approaches, including global governance that percolates from the bottom up, not top-down. At Rio, city leaders helped step into the vacuum to fight climate change. Under the label,  C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), mayors from more than fifty megacities around the world  announced a new partnership with the Clean Air Coalition to improve cities’ waste management. The organization estimates that the 4,734 measures it has adopted to combat climate change could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over a billion tons by 2030.

The private sector also upped its game. Corporate representatives were largely absent from the 1992 summit, despite their significant contributions to environmental degradation. This time, they joined with national governments to donate $513 billion to reduce fossil fuels and promote sustainable development. The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Levi Strauss & Co., Royal Dutch Shell, Unilever and forty other transnational corporations pledged to set concrete goals to improve water efficiency and wastewater management. Kimberly-Clark (the world’s largest producer of tissues) also promised to halve its use of wood from natural forests over the next three years.

The fundamental question that remains is, of course, who will monitor their progress and hold them accountable. But the international community has not yet figured out how to enforce commitments from national governments themselves. In the meantime, it certainly can’t hurt to get the private sector on board voluntarily.

My colleagues from around the world don’t necessarily agree with my assessments of Rio+20. Read their assessments on’s fourth Global Expert Roundup, drawing on voices from CFR’s Council of Councils initiative, here.