Examining Rio+20’s Outcome

Although this year’s Rio+20 conference produced only vague goals and few concrete commitments, it provided a major opportunity to shift the global environmental focus to the national and local levels, says this Expert Roundup.

July 05, 2012

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

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Energy and Climate Policy

Editor’s note: This roundup is a new monthly feature of the Council of Councils initiative, gathering opinions from global experts on major international developments.

The Rio+20 summit on environmental sustainability in late June 2012 did not produce any breakthrough agreements or commitments, but it provided an international platform to shed light on pressing issues in the quest to secure global sustainable development.

Suan Ee Ong of Nanyang Technological University writes that the lofty, all-inclusive goals of the Rio+20 outcome document "seem to err on the side of breadth while lacking in depth," but that the summit’s larger achievement may be making global sustainable development goals a priority on the international agenda. Romulo S. R. Sampaio of the Getulio Vargas Foundation argues that Rio+20 shifted the focus of the "green economy" agenda to the national and domestic level, where concrete goals and actions can be more readily formulated.

Andrei Marcu of the Centre for European Policy Studies notes that while the Rio+20 summit did not produce strong commitments or agreements, it did produce "success where it really matters"--in tangible financial commitments for sustainable development goals. Meanwhile, Agathe Maupin and Elizabeth Sidiropoulos of the South African Institute of International Affairs write that the lack of a clearly defined path to a "green economy" allows developing countries "critical national policy space" to formulate their own paths, while also discussing developed countries’ willingness to undertake responsibilities for committing to a sustainable global future.

Suan Ee Ong

Rio+20 saw several positive outcomes, the most high-profile of which was the decision to establish Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) next year. The SDG topics will encompass all three aspects of sustainable development--economic, social and environmental--and will seek to perpetuate momentum in international development work beyond the poverty-eradicating mission of the Millennium Development Goals, which will lapse in 2015.

Rio+20 also saw other accomplishments. Governments, private companies, and multilateral agencies committed themselves to voluntary pledges worth $513 billion toward a series of development projects. Eight international development banks agreed to invest $175 billion to sustainable public transport systems over the next decade. Private sector companies pledged to contribute $50 billion to a plan to provide energy to the entire global population by 2030. However, the degree to which these pledges will be fulfilled remains uncertain, particularly in a time of persistent global economic downturn.

Experts note that the most important outcome of Rio+20 is not a document or treaty, but that it catalyzes a global call to make sustainable development priorities central to global thinking.

Rio+20’s outcome document, The Future We Want (PDF), attempts to call attention to a cornucopia of the world’s most pressing development issues, from food security to mining. However, its hope to address these challenges while upholding states’ "common but differentiated responsibilities" and "providing opportunities and benefits for all citizens and all countries" seems to err on the side of breadth while lacking depth.

Additionally, the language of the document appears oblique, repeatedly "reaffirming," "recognizing," and "strongly urging," but "committing" to little. The deletion of several major commitments, including specific targets for cutting carbon emissions and a $30 billion fund for sustainable environmental activities in developing countries, further weakens the document.

Much of Rio+20 focused on the "green economy," an effort led by developed Western nations, which aims to create jobs and profits through low-carbon, resource-saving businesses. The robustness of the framework, however, has come under fire. Part of the green economy involves potentially placing economic value on environmental services provided by nature, an approach that some argue "financializes nature." Further, this framework has been criticized for not considering the most immediate concerns of the developing world, including malnourishment; the burden of tropical, communicable, and neglected diseases; and access to clean water, sanitation, and electricity.

Several experts note that the most important outcome of Rio+20 is that it catalyzes a global call to make sustainable development priorities central to global thinking and action. In the aftermath of Rio+20, we wait with bated breath to see whether this will come to be.

Rômulo S. R. Sampaio

Forging a clear path for achieving a green economy has been a world challenge since the 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment. Since then, the international community has undertaken important attempts to address this relevant issue, including the 1987 Brundtland Report and the 1992 Rio Declaration. Rio+20 was another major step.

One important outcome was expected from the Rio+20 conference: an international fund to promote a worldwide green economy. Developing countries were reluctant to accept that they had to contribute. Developed countries did not recognize developing countries as one single and uniform group. As a result, a strong agreement was not possible. Instead, achievements were limited to a document with vague language and few concrete steps.

What Rio+20 achieved was bringing attention to the fact that the path to a green economy lies at the national and local level.

What Rio+20 achieved, however, was bringing attention to the fact that the path to a green economy lies at the national and local level. Public and private stakeholders and civil society demonstrated a willingness to pursue a more sustainable course, regardless of the outcomes of an international agreement. In light of the conference’s deadlocks, the focus shifted away from the vision of an international legal framework aiming to solve global environmental problems through global governance and toward the promotion of domestic and local action.

On one hand, the insufficient results of the Rio+20 may have resulted in the end of mega-UN conferences. But on the other, they may have contributed to raising international awareness. Pursuing a green economy at the national level is less of a burden and more of a necessity in order to adapt to a fast-changing environment. Countries taking the lead on promoting a green economy domestically will soon realize that it can pay off by creating a competitive advantage in areas such energy, agriculture, and transportation. The major underlying message provided by Rio+20 is that if a green economy is handled effectively at the domestic level, it can soon become quite profitable for those who have the political will to think creatively about the near future.

Andrei Marcu

Twenty years after the 1992 Rio conference, the world is different, and it is undeniable that some progress has been achieved and many initiatives started. Many of the issues that took center stage in 1992 now have a "home," like the UN Convention on Climate Change.

At the same time, if only looking at the three Rio conventions we could conclude that progress has been too slow, and that we are reverting to the old paradigm of seeing sustainability and growth as competitors. Even the carbon market, which seemed for a while to drive change, now seems far divorced from its sustainability roots, commoditized, and unable to drive long-term change.

If Rio+20 is to be seen as a failure, it is a failure of governments. The outcome document, full of references to "reaffirm" and "support" efforts, failed to re-energize the sustainability movement. Rio+20 did not forge new agreements and did not lead to new commitments.

Rio+20 could be seen as a "taking stock" event that created new "hooks" for progress to emerge if there is political will.

However, Rio+20 could be seen as a "taking stock" event that created new "hooks" for progress to emerge if there is political will. What was achieved in Rio this year was as much as the political ambition allowed at the time. The green economy was recognized as one of many approaches to sustainability, though no specific means of support were provided. Strengthening governance for sustainable development (SD) was "solved" by launching a "high-level" political forum that will replace the Commission on Sustainable Development. Rio+20 also took a timid step toward strengthening governance for the environmental pillar by inviting the UN General Assembly to strengthen the UN Environment Programme.

In addressing thematic areas, governments did not go beyond what has been already agreed or is being implemented. Notably, the section on energy, while reproducing many aspects of the very promising initiative "Sustainable Energy for All," failed to endorse concrete goals.

Despite all this, Rio+20 succeeded on what really matters: concrete action on the ground.

Rio+20 mobilized more than $513 billion in commitments for sustainable development, including energy, transport, green economy, disaster reduction, desertification, water, forests and agriculture. In total, 713 voluntary commitments for sustainable development have been registered by governments, business, civil society groups, universities and others.

Rio+20: success or failure? It is too early to tell.

Agathe Maupin and Elizabeth Sidiropoulos

Ambition is not the personality trait of global summitry. Summits are defined by incrementalism, although sometimes a "big bang" might be more appropriate.

The Future We Want, articulated in the hallowed halls of the Rio+20 summit, covered everything that could possibly contribute to sustainable development, but there was nothing earth-changing (pardon the pun) in the outcomes, at least as far as the "global commons" are concerned. "Green economies" are less about the commons than about national policies. And the response to the call to elevate and strengthen the global environmental architecture was mealy-mouthed, although skepticism about the ability of an overarching environmental body to deal with sustainability is not entirely misplaced.

The outcome document did not precisely define the paths to a "green economy," nor could it. Retaining critical national policy space and avoiding the perversion of the green economy concept by the industrialized world have been key concerns for many developing countries, and were captured in the document’s reference to the need to avoid unwarranted conditionality and possible restrictions on trade. As in other negotiating forums, countries like South Africa, India, and Brazil have argued vociferously for the adoption of "common but differentiated responsibility." Nationally, South Africa has integrated a green economy into its policies, having established a green fund to finance "green economy" projects; incorporated renewables into its energy mix; and launched the Green Economy Accord between government, labor, and business to create 300,000 jobs in the next ten years.

Can industrialized nations accept "common but differentiated" responsibilities, but avoid taking the necessary decisions to actualize this?

South Africa will also lead member states on the articulation of a sustainable development financing strategy agreed to at Rio. Financing is one constraint facing the rollout of green economy policies, although Mozambique (a Least Developed Country) launched its road map at Rio last week. The more fundamental obstacle, compounded by the economic crisis, is that of self-interest, which vitiates against executing policies that are politically costly in the short term, but advance the global commons in the long term. Can industrialized nations accept "common but differentiated" responsibilities, but avoid taking the necessary decisions to actualize this? And what responsibilities should bigger developing economies take on if they are sincere about creating global rules that protect future generations from our worst excesses?