Outcome of Rio+20: UN Conference on Sustainable Development

Updated On: Jun 25, 2012

A tradition of environmental summits

The Rio+20 conference brought together world leaders, along with participants from governments, the private sector, NGOs, and other groups from June 20-22 to discuss issues of poverty, social equity, and environmental protection. It marked the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.

The conference focused on the two themes of a green economy in the context of sustainable development - poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development. The proposed outcome of the conference was the adoption of a series of universal sustainable development goals (SDGs). The purpose of the SDGs was to address the issues of poverty eradication, environmental protection and sustainable consumption and production, in complement to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

"Critics said that there was little to show beyond the reaffirmation of existing actions on several fronts," commented Dr. Kua Harn Wei, Associate Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) and Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore.

"However, such reaffirmations do refer us back to original action plans that are already in implementation stages, and detailed themes and concrete actions can be seen in countries and municipalities that have taken the initiative to implement these plans," explained Dr. Kua, who attended the discussions in Rio.

“The Future We Want”

The outcome document, titled "The Future We Want", was built around a plan to set SDGs, but the themes have not been chosen, much less clearly defined. They have been left to an "open working group" of 30 nations to decide by September 2013, and two years later they will be combined with the MDGs. It should be noted that the MDGs themselves were targeted to be achieved by 2015. These new goals could be the focus of conflict between developing and developed countries in the coming years, as developing countries have argued that they needed financial assistance in switching to a greener development model.

However, the topic of funding was also left to subsequent negotiations, as many of the countries at the summit were facing pressing domestic economic crises. In the Preparatory Committee Meeting before the summit, there had been discussion of a sustainable development fund with a $30 billion annual budget that would have increased to $100 billion in 2018. However, The US and the EU refused to approve the proposal and there is therefore no current commitment to the funding of the measures proposed. In response to this, the G77 countries plus China managed to start a UN General Assembly process to consider new financial and technology mechanisms to support these measures.

Furthermore, prior to the conference, a group of eight international development banks, led by the Asian Development Bank, pledged to invest $175 billion into sustainable transport schemes in Asia and Africa over the next decade, to combat road congestion and air pollution. Another new initiative is known as the Adaptation Fund, which finances adaptation initiatives in developing countries that are parties to the Kyoto Protocol. 

"The Future We Want" document contained many other steps besides the SDGs, but these were also loosely defined, as well as recognition by all governments that fundamental changes are necessary for achieving global sustainable development, as well as many other steps, also loosely defined.

"I do agree with the critics in that detailed timelines were not set for any of the sustainability issues in the final document," said SIIA Associate Fellow Dr. Kua. "Then again, I believe when these different actions are taken at the local or sub-national levels, detailed timelines would have been set. The question is whether these deadlines are being adhered to during project implementation."

Dr. Kua added that it is fair that the signed document at Rio not contain all the details.

Mixed reactions

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, said the document would help provide guidance to a more sustainable path and called for critical mass in support for it. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, spoke optimistically, saying that a prosperous future of sustainable development was within reach. Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency and deputy head of the US delegation, Lisa Jackson, pointed out that the document is the first multilateral document on the green economy with broad-based support.

However, it faced widespread criticism from environmentalists and anti-poverty campaigners for lacking detail and ambition. Greenpeace International Executive Director, Kumi Naidoo, expressed disappointment, saying that state leaders had supported business as usual rather than people and the planet. Chief Executive of Oxfam GB, Barbara Stocking, shared a similar opinion, describing a worrying lack of action on the part of world leaders.

Even government leaders who participated in the conference expressed disappointment, with one stating that the final document "contributes almost nothing to our struggle to survive as a species."

Prospects for change

Encouragingly,  given the size of the conference (nearly 50,000 participants), the activity outside the main negotiating sessions produced a number of side agreements that do not require ratification or direct financing by governments and could present the possibility of real, incremental progress.

Therefore, the complete outcome does reflect ongoing power shifts around the world, as developing countries become more assertive in international forums and grass-roots organizations and corporations take on a more active role with regard to governments.

"I see hope in international partnerships of local and sub-national organizations in promoting sustainability bottom-up. Concrete actions have actually taken place on that front," said Dr. Kua.

Moving Forward

The outcome document at Rio was not very forceful on the need to end reliance on fossil fuels. ButDr. Kua noted this should be expected.

"We need to ask whether this reaction is any surprise, given the fact that the current economy is very much dependent on fossil fuels and that economically viable alternate energy resources are still absent on a large scale," he said.

"This is why it is becoming even more important to look into life cycle resource efficiency in all our industrial and economic processes, while keeping the Rebound Effect in check."

"It is also getting more urgent for sub-national and local stakeholders - cities and municipalities - to implement locally viable resource efficiency programs to help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions," Dr. Kua added.

"One of the brightest outcomes of the Rio+20 is actually how different cities around the world have come together to form partnerships to share or collaborate on these local or sub-national efforts. Progress has been made. More such actions should be taken. These should give us more hope to control GHG emissions in the future than solely relying on top-down mechanisms stemming from the signing of multilateral agreements at the UN level."

"In fact, if sufficient progress can be made at the local or sub-national levels and as more and more collaborations materialize, signing of such multilateral agreement may even become possible in the future. Everything has got to start from the individuals. Then again, in order for this to happen, more funding commitment from the private sector is crucial for success. And in order for that to happen, private sector stakeholders need to be engaged in these collaborations," Dr. Kua concluded.

Report: "Rio+20 Earth Summit: campaigners decry final document" [The Guardian, 23 June 2012]
Report: "Rio summit ends with warning on corporate power" [BBC, 23 June 2012]
Report: "Progress on the Sidelines as Rio Conference Ends" [NY Times, 23 June 2012]

Report: "Rio+20: Progess on Earth issues 'too slow' - UN chief" [BBC, 20 June 2012] 

Report: "Rio+20 deal weakens on energy and water pledges" [BBC, 17 June 2012]

Presentation: “Adaptation to Climate Change and Disaster
Risk Reduction”
 [Adaptation Fund, June 2012]

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