Sustainable Development

Rio+20 marks further progress in global movement for sustainable development

In Brief: 
  • Although many participants were disappointed by the lack of concrete comments from governments in Rio+20’s final agreements, others said the conference nevertheless played a key role in the evolution of the global movement for sustainable development.
  • The largest UN meeting ever, Rio+20 provided a venue for a global interchange of ideas on sustainable development, such as new institutional frameworks for its promotion and its connection to a “green economy.”
  • Some 700 voluntary commitments from not only governments but also businesses and civil society suggest that non-governmental groups are no longer waiting on the sidelines for government action.

RIO DE JANEIRO — Comparisons between the groundbreaking 1992 Rio Earth Summit and this year’s Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development are unavoidable.

Coming shortly after the end of the Cold War, amid the expectation of a “peace dividend,” the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development here produced a set of stirring principles on poverty eradication, environmental protection, and civil society participation to guide humanity into a cleaner and more prosperous 21st century.

The 2012 conference, however, was set against the backdrop of a global economic crisis that had presented many governments with immediate financial challenges. Observers worried that Rio+20 would not live up to its provenance, saying governments seemed mostly unwilling to make the hard choices needed to create a truly sustainable future.

And, indeed, the official outcome document was criticized by many for its lack of concrete commitments, weak governance structures, and limited vision.

Yet a number of observers say the event nevertheless gave a powerful push to the global movement for sustainable development, especially among actors in civil society and business.

Rio+20 was the largest ever United Nations conference. Some 45,000 people came, representing not only governments and international agencies, but also business groups, local authorities, and virtually all sectors of civil society, including environmental groups, women, young people, labor unions, and indigenous people.

Indeed, some participants said that the level of participation by non-governmental groups reached a new height at Rio+20, marking a palpable shift in thinking about how best to address the issues of sustainable development. 

“The game changer at Rio+20 was that civil society is no longer looking for government to do everything,” said Duncan Hanks, a Canadian Bahá’í who participated in the conference.

“We are no longer waiting for governments to define the policy space before action on sustainable development is taken. New actors have arisen in the field, with new experience and enhanced capacities that are the result of some 20 years of education and work on environment and development,” he said.

Mr. Hanks and others pointed in particular to the list of some 700 voluntary commitments made not only by governments but also businesses and NGOs. Their total financial equivalent was estimated at more than US$500 billion. They include actions such as planting 100 million trees by 2017, greening 10,000 square kilometers of desert, empowering 5,000 women entrepreneurs in green economy businesses in Africa, recycling 800,000 tons per year of PVC plastic by 2020, and commitments by dozens of universities to make their campuses more sustainable.

“The intensely negotiated Rio+20 outcome document is not the only Rio+20 outcome,” said Olav Kjørven, the United Nations assistant secretary-general for development policy, in a post-Rio blog posting. “What happened outside the negotiation room has potentially changed the nature of UN summitry, largely by redefining the plurality of actors involved and elevating their ownership of creating the future we want.”

Held 20-22 June, the official Rio+20 meeting was preceded by weeks of parallel meetings and side events. These included some 500 workshops and seminars at the main conference site, specialized forums on “Corporate Sustainability” and “Science, Technology and Innovation,” and a “People’s Summit” at Flamengo Park in downtown Rio that offered a platform for citizens and groups not registered for the official conference.

Global exchange of ideas

Taken all together, these interlocking meetings provided a venue for a global interchange of ideas on the main topics of Rio+20, which were defined in advance by the UN General Assembly as “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” and “the institutional framework for sustainable development.”

Global civil society provided important inputs to the main outcome document, which was nearly two years in the making. Early drafts were drawn from suggestions made by non-governmental organizations, who filed thousands of pages of proposals. At one point, more than 70 percent of the inputs to the main negotiating document had come from civil society, said Sha Zukang, secretary-general of Rio+20.

The final document, titled “The Future We Want,” was adopted by consensus on 22 June by government delegations that included more than 100 heads of state. Among other things, the document reaffirmed principles adopted in 1992 and pledged renewed commitment to “sustainable development and to ensuring the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations.”

It also stated that eradicating poverty is “the greatest global challenge facing the world today,” saying “we are committed to freeing humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency.” To this end, governments said, they will accelerate efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by their 2015 deadline.

Governments also pledged to work closely with civil society. “Sustainable development requires the meaningful involvement and active participation of regional, national and subnational legislatures and judiciaries, and all major groups.”

For many participants, it was not enough. “Despite over one hundred heads of state attending the conference, no new political will was created,” noted Wael Hmaidan of the Climate Action Network-International. “No treaties were signed nor any more new agencies or funds created.”

Others, however, noted that governments did not step back from the main principles of sustainable development outlined 20 years before — and that some new ideas still emerged, such as a proposal to transition from the soon-to-be-expired MDGs to new “sustainable development goals.”

“The whole concept of sustainable development goals is quite important, because it is so important for policy to have metrics,” said Halldór Thorgeirsson, director for implementation strategy at the UN Climate Change Secretariat.

The document also established a “framework for action and follow-up” in a number of thematic areas, including poverty eradication, food security and sustainable agriculture, water and sanitation, energy and energy efficiency, sustainable tourism and transportation, oceans, forests, biodiversity, health, and employment.

“The first Rio conference was mainly about moving the environmental agenda forward, which it did in very powerful ways,” wrote Mr. Kjørven. “This time, world leaders signaled that they ‘get’ that the systems and behaviors that have taken us to this point in history have to change for the better. It is not about ‘whether’ anymore. It is about ‘when’. This shift of mindset will challenge orthodoxy and could be transformational.”