Overcoming Rio+20’s ’Summit Fatigue’

Despite not delivering major mandates, the summit could start a new process for sustainable development and open opportunities for new stakeholders, says CFR’s Thomas Bollyky.

June 22, 2012

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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The Rio+20 conference on sustainable development is unlikely to deliver the sweeping international environmental mandates that followed the original high-level environmental summit of 1992 in Rio, which set the international agenda for the next two decades. Much has changed since then, from the rise of emerging economies to increasing urbanization, the global financial crisis and "summit fatigue," says CFR’s Thomas Bollyky, who also notes that Rio+20 comes "on the heels of a series of global summits that produced little." He says that there is possible space to negotiate on sustainable technology cooperation and transfer and lowering trade barriers to environmental services. "Relative success, or at least a somewhat positive outcome, would be a perception of the Rio+20 conference that does not entirely sap the momentum around sustainable development and small-scale initiatives that create momentum for the future," he says. "We may see tangible, productive proposals emerging at the national, city, and state level."

How would you compare the 2012 Rio summit with the one twenty years ago?

The original Rio conference introduced the concept of sustainable development and made climate change a standing issue on the world’s agenda for world leaders to discuss. It produced treaties and multilateral institutions to help shape international cooperation on climate change, biodiversity, desertification, and global funding to address these challenges. It was really met, at the time, with tremendous optimism. The 1992 conference was attended by [then] President George H.W. Bush, and environmentalism was an issue in the U.S. presidential election; more European leaders were there as well.

The situation now is quite different, and a much more difficult terrain. There is has been tremendous population growth; unprecedented urbanization, particularly in low- and middle- income countries; and a rise of emerging economies, all combining to put pressure on the environment and social systems. Energy needs are predicted to grow 50 percent by 2035 and water demand to grow about the same rate over the same period. Cities in China and India alone will add five hundred million people to their urban populations in the next twenty years. Throw that into the mix with the gloomy economic situation, and major leaps forward at this conference were just non-starters.

There’s tremendous fatigue with summits and a lack of consensus, particularly on these broad, systemic issues.

The one other element is summit fatigue. There’s just not a good history of a global summit of this kind, with a broad agenda, actually delivering change in how the world does its economic or energy business. It is also coming on the heels of a series of global summits that produced little, including the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009 and similar gatherings in Cancun and Durbin. It’s coming on the heels of a UN general assembly on non-communicable diseases last year, which was also meant to replicate what was perceived as a successful summit on HIV years ago. There’s tremendous fatigue with summits and a lack of consensus, particularly on these broad, systemic issues, on how responsibilities and costs should be shared by major powers.

What’s significant in terms of what’s on the table in the communiqué to be debated?

First, there will be a recasting of the notion of sustainable development, broadening it to encompass the concepts of poverty eradication and social inclusion--which is really about income and wealth disparity, which is growing throughout the world, in middle income countries in particular.

The other strong theme in this communiqué is setting up a process to negotiate sustainable development goals, which are meant to mirror or complement the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015. These goals are intended to provide a yardstick for this conversation as it proceeds around sustainable development, a framework for that discussion, and a flag to rally civil society supporters around. These goals are expected to cover topics connected to sustainable consumption and production, particularly with regard to oceans, food security, agricultural production, access to water, and sustainable cities. It will be a challenge to negotiate though. These issues are complex and politically contentious, and you’ll need these goals to be both universal--to apply to both developed and developing countries--and comprehensive.

Is there any stand-out issue of extreme importance?

What this summit will be remembered for is for initiating the process of negotiating the sustainable development goals. It remains to be seen how significant that outcome is. It may well be that this summit is just the latest in a series of high profile summits to produce little in terms of tangible agreements or consensus that can hold the interested community together.

The number and diversity of stakeholders at the meeting--including business, indigenous communities, and city representatives--has increased dramatically compared to twenty years ago. Yet President Obama, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande all will not attend. Which is the more important group in dealing with sustainable development?

There will be forty thousand environmentalists, ten thousand government officials, and several dozen world leaders at this conference. I think it’s the largest UN meeting in history. Certainly, it lacks the representation of world leaders present at the last summit. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. It’s hard to argue that the leader-driven treaties that emerged from the last summit, while they have set a framework for discussion, produced much of consequence. International negotiation on climate change remains quite slow. In terms of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide as a percentage in the atmosphere has risen [to] 400 parts per million from 360 parts per million in 1990. On biodiversity and desertification, there is little happening. The number of species is plummeting and desertification hasn’t moved as an item for the international agenda.

So it the broader representation of civil society and private sector at this summit may provide an opportunity for interested and like-minded parties to work with the governments that are ready and able to move forward on a common plan and to give these non-governmental players an opportunity to advance unorthodox ideas.

Ahead of the meeting, the UN released a paper touting a path to a so-called "green economy". What do you think about its suggestions?

The paper was intended to put forward a plan for a different development model from the historical model of countries growing first and worrying about the environment later. This was meant to merge the concepts of economic growth in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner. It focused on the possibility of pricing natural resources, increasing access to technologies, and better urban design.

Unfortunately, the proposals on green economy haven’t gone anywhere at Rio+20. Part of the issue is the proposals on subsidies and technologies have been bogged down by accusations of a "green-washing" capitalist push to favor developed country industries over the environment by cutting consumption, and by fears among many developing countries that environmental standards discussed in this document would be used to cut exports and gross in emerging economies. So, not as much will happen on this concept as was originally hoped. There was a belief that the notion of a green economy would be the big concept that emerged from Rio 20, much in the same way that sustainable development had been the concept that had emerged from its predecessor.

One issue listed in the draft document is cooperating on technology innovation and transfers of property rights, as well as financing their development, which also has been part of international climate discussions. What impact is this having in the draft document?

Innovation and the deployment of technology is key, particularly in the environmental area. The reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions that are needed to have a meaningful and sustainable environmental impact are politically infeasible and would undermine economic development in developing countries by cutting access to energy, if you don’t have significant improvements in both clean technologies available and how widely they’re distributed.

We may see tangible, productive proposals emerging at the national, city, and state level.

There are some references and discussions in the document to this, around technology transfer and also trying to prevent the widening of the technology gap between governments. But more needs to be done, certainly around creating an enabling environment of the production and distribution of these technologies, giving incentives to the private sector, and using the limited public funds available to leverage private investment and finance.

The UN also put out a paper looking at so-called "outsourced emissions" from rising international trade. What trade implications are there in terms of poverty eradication in sustainable development, and where do the problems lie?

The discussion on trade will mostly reflect what occurred in the original Rio declaration, which stated that trade measures should be used to achieve environmental goals and not lead to discrimination or unilateral actions that would prevent addressing transboundary global problems. The language in the communiqué that emerges this time is expected to reaffirm that. There are some issues around trade that hopefully will provide a basis for future discussions. In particular, there is an effort afoot to reduce trade barriers to environmental goods and services, at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and World Trade Organization Doha round. It would be great to see more momentum emerge for these crucial efforts.

There’s also the issue of access to technology and knowledge, and that’s ultimately around intellectual property management. One issue that has been contentious in Rio is this notion of technology transfer. You need a document that reflects the current state of affairs is, which is no longer just a north to south transfer of clean technology, but a robust trade among emerging and developed economies in this area. There could be more done in the international community in terms of leveraging existing funds for climate adaptation to make sure that they have intellectual property treatment that encourages the accessibility of technology.

What’s your sense of the best and worst possible outcomes of this meeting, and what could be the next step?

We are going to get a modest agreement that compels the parties to do little, if anything. That is a certainty. Relative success, or at least a somewhat positive outcome, would be a perception of the Rio+20 conference that does not entirely sap the momentum around sustainable development and small scale initiatives that create momentum for the future. In terms of the latter, we may see tangible, productive proposals emerging at the national, city, and state level. This is a level on which you can make progress, even in the current global economic environment. And you are starting to see some of that: Brazil has done a tremendous job halting deforestation; it’s down 78 percent since 2004. The eight largest multilateral development banks have already announced at this Rio 20 summit that they will commit nearly 200 billion dollars to finance sustainable transport systems. If more of these types of relatively small-scale national and private sector initiatives emerge at this conference, I would consider it a success.