The Rio+20 Conference: A Useful Forum for External Commitments, but No Transformational Vision

Delegates met last week in Rio de Janeiro for a third major international conference to discuss new approaches to reaching sustainable development goals. They have approved a 53-page document that purports to outline “The Future We Want.” While this outcome document contains many reasonable statements of consensus, it is neither transformational nor visionary, and the delegates also missed several opportunities to produce even small victories. Judged simply against the document, the Rio+20 meeting delivered nothing as substantive as the previous conferences in 1972 and 1992. Moreover, it is quite likely that the media will focus almost exclusively on this uninspiring document — alternating statements of disappointment among environmental advocates with the official statements of the delegations. However, the Rio+20 meeting would be better judged more comprehensively across several areas in which it might have effected changes.

While many people would argue, with good justification, that transformational or visionary approaches are needed to address the environment and development challenges of the coming decades, few international conferences produce such sweeping consensus. Accordingly, it can be helpful to focus on what can really be achieved by a large group of diverse actors, working across a broad and diffuse set of goals, and with limited ability to impose regulatory burdens on countries. Mindful of these challenges to success, there are four ways in which such meetings can ultimately produce something of value: outcome documents; catalyzing external commitments; reinforcing and expanding communities of expertise; and establishing norms, expectations and pathways for domestic policy.

  1. Establishing new agreements. The obvious model for the Rio+20 conference is the previous Rio Earth Summit in 1992. That conference produced a short statement of consensus on sustainable development, a long exposition of principles to guide actions, and three treaties covering biodiversity, climate change, and desertification. The Rio+20 meeting produced only a consensus statement that is essentially a simple affirmation of existing ideas. 
  2. Catalyzing external commitments. In the circumstance that new treaties are not being negotiated, there are other ways that they can influence policy and effect real outcomes. Such forums can have high international legitimacy, but have little jurisdictional authority or ability to command funding or implement projects. However, many institutions with those powers, such as states and multilateral development banks, participate actively in these events. As part of their involvement, these entities are prompted to evaluate how their own mission might benefit from or contribute to the overall goals of the conference.
  3. Creating communities of expertise. Conferences aspire to create and strengthen networks and communities of expertise. These communities interact with policy in two ways. First, interacting with others can provide participants with new ideas and expertise. To the extent that this does happen, those people will be able to bring ideas home to their own domestic policy contexts and potentially contribute in new ways with their own organization, government department or constituency. The meetings operate in a second way as well, by conferring some additional authority to those people who have attended. Neither of these mechanisms is universally effective, but both have the potential to enhance the ability and interests of individual delegates in bringing the ideas from such conferences back home, where policies can be implemented more directly and effectively.
  4. Establishing new expectations. Outcome documents do matter as statements of principle, and to the extent that these documents can codify evolving norms, they can be helpful in gradually affecting domestic policy. The incorporation of a 2-degree warming target in the 2010 Copenhagen Accord on climate change is one example of this. However, expectations and norms can evolve even without being codified, and this is to be expected in periods when an idea is making the transition from a minority to a consensus viewpoint.

The Rio outcome is best evaluated in light of these four dimensions.

First, undoubtedly the most important and most visible product of the conference is the outcome document. Many environment ministers and delegations will be framing this document as a partial success: we will hear statements like “it is a step forward” or “it provides guidance for future action.” All of that is true, to a point, but there are many degrees of tepid. The outcome document is nearly empty of new actions, initiatives, or concrete steps that will lead directly to new and enhanced sustainable development. It is not just a glass half full/half empty question; the issue is whether the few drops of water in the glass constitute any reason for notice.

Notable aspects of “The Future We Want” outcome document include:

  • A clear statement of sustainable development being comprised of three “pillars”: poverty alleviation (or eradication), economic vitality and environmental protection, with a clear statement of poverty alleviation as the top priority. While many people have already criticized the document for being simply a restatement, this shift toward emphasizing both economy and poverty alleviation is new.
  • A reaffirmation of many principles of sustainable development from earlier documents (such as the 1992 Earth Summit and the 2002 Johannesburg summit).
  • An agreement to improve the “Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development.” This will involve restructuring some of the internal bureaucracy in the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC); establishing new procedures for budgeting and expanding representation in the UN Environment Programme; and a decision to establish a “universal intergovernmental high-level political forum” that “could” undertake a number of convening activities.
  • Statements about most conceivable aspects of sustainable development, across topic areas, regions, and governance.
  • A decision to begin a process “on” sustainable development goals (SDGs). The choice of vague language, without a specific end goal specified, is not accidental. There had been some confusion about the relative position with possible SDGs in relation to the existing Millennium Development Goals, and this document seeks to underscore that such activities would not supplant the MDG process. Now there is a process that will likely lead to creation of the SDGs but the details remain to be determined.

Equally interesting about the document is what was left out. The agreement was progressively watered down as individual countries objected to phrases or commitments. Words like “equitable”, and concepts like a right to food or gender equality, “unsustainable consumption and production patterns” and “common but differentiated responsibilities” were eliminated. Rather than endorsing “sustainable energy for all” and the multilateral initiative already working to support it, the outcome document merely “notes” it. The net result is a document that is excessively cautious about anything other than “reaffirming” existing commitments and making the most incremental of changes to the institutional approach to sustainable development.

“The Future We Want” represents perhaps a few very small steps and it would be disappointing if this were the only outcome from the meeting. However, the occasion of the conference did stimulate some decisions and initiatives that were not directly a result of the negotiations; most of these were the culmination of discussions held within organizations focused on the Rio+20 conference as a deadline of sorts. Such activities included the release of a number of reports (such as UNEP’s GEO-5, and the new Global Energy Assessment) and the announcement of new funding support. The most noteworthy new funding announcement was a new $175 billion transportation financing program from several multilateral development banks. In addition, the U.S. offered a $2 billion commitment to the Sustainable Energy for All initiative, which is a collaboration of a number of international organizations.

In addition to this catalytic function, the Rio+20 conference undoubtedly fostered productive conversation among the estimated 30,000 attendees. Like any conference, it sought to offer a useful opportunity for representatives from government, development aid organizations, financing institutions, the private sector, research organizations, and other stakeholder groups to discuss issues of mutual interest. For example, one consistent message voiced across many of the major participating organizations (e.g. UNDP) was an interest in generating better methodologies for environmental accounting. Such measures of “green GDP” would incorporate changes in natural assets or environmental services into national accounts. While this idea has been around for decades, and was mentioned in the 1992 Rio documents, participating organizations at Rio+20 have initiated a process to develop these methodologies over the coming several years. Whether they mature into real and usable procedures is yet to be seen, but the Rio+20 meeting did unquestionably provide a forum to focus on this conversation.

Even compared with other international meetings, the agenda for the Rio+20 Conference was diffuse, covering nearly every aspect of the environment and development agenda. The final outcome document, as a statement of current consensus, contains a number of principles that are solid but unremarkable. It offers few new initiatives or even new concepts to set a destination and a pathway for the next 20 years. It is unlikely that much of the text will be influential. The dialogues that it initiates will likely lead to new sustainable development goals that would complement or feed into the renewed conversation about refreshing the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, and the movement to assert the economic and development elements of sustainable development is notable. Probably the largest contribution will come from the many smaller conversations around individual regional and topical issues, such as energy, transportation and oceans.

The largely self-evident and uninspiring outcome document should prompt some reflection upon the utility of major integrative meetings such as Rio+20. However, one of the measures of success from these meetings is the degree to which they encourage or influence the generation of new domestic goals, policies, or regulations—at the national level—and for that reason it is of course far too early to assess the true value of the conference. The best way for those who were disappointed with the Rio outcome is to ensure that the principles that were guiding discussion are brought home, applied and improved upon in individual country contexts.