Rio 20 Years On – The UN Conference on Sustainable Development 2012

The results of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development here in Rio de Janeiro said more about the state of geopolitics than any advance in sustainability. About fifty thousand people gathered for one of the most participatory global summits in history…but to what avail?

Lynn Wagner (4th from right) and I (2nd from right) delivered morning briefings to NGOs (Photo: Leila Mead, IISD)

Non Governmental Organisations, led by Greenpeace, have been quick to dismiss the event as failure of epic proportions. The political centrepiece of the negotiations is a fifty-page list of non-binding reaffirmations of undertakings – many with origins in past summits, including the original UN Confererence on Environment and Development (or “Earth Summit”) in 1992. The document bears the grand title: “The Future We Want.” With the United States at the tail end of a presidential election cycle, the Europeans immersed in the Euro crisis, and other political upheavals competing for attention, the 20th anniversary summit dubbed “Rio+20” produced a modest list of new undertakings, most notably the launch of a process that will see the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)superceded in 2015 by a new set of universal Sustainable Development Goals, designed to steer the international development agenda. They will likely include themes such as climate and energy, agriculture and food security, sustainable consumption and production, and poverty reduction. Unlike the MDGs the new goals will also apply to those of us living in the relative comfort of developed economies. Other achievements at UNCSD or Rio+20 event will be limited in their impact beyond the circles of sustainable development activists. They include a recommendation that the UN General Assembly take decisions on upgrading the United Nations Environment Programme and creating a new high-level political forum within the UN system – both to add political weight to environmental and sustainability programmes and decisions that currently languish in the shadow of the bigger economic and social agendas driven by organisations such as the World Trade Organisation.

If people feel that the outcomes were modest, we might take some comfort from the fact that things could have been much worse. After two years of negotiations and distilling thousands of proposals, the UN-driven process came to a shuddering halt with less than half of the draft negotiating text agreed with just days to go before the opening of the Conference last week. The Brazilian host government – led by their gifted corps of diplomats – rescued the negotiations in the space of a weekend and guillotined the process producing a highly unusual experience for UN delegates who have come to expect a predictable round of late nights, exhausting rounds of informal consultations, media predictions of collapse, and a result at five minutes to midnight!  The Brazilians decided they were having none of that – having noted the collapse in confidence in multilateral negotiations that has followed recent lackluster climate conferences.

Ambassador André Corrêa do Lago, the host country’s energy chief at the Department of Foreign Affairs and lead negotiator at Rio+20, expressed content with the outcome with multilateralism in tact and no roll back on prior commitments. The summit also saw a shift in emphasis with more on the social and human rights dimensions of sustainable development. For countries like Brazil – and Mexico which hosted the G20 summit last week – the integrity of the multilateral system remains of paramount importance as a guarantee that emerging powers will continue to build on their newly assertive status as brokers of a shift in power away from Washington, London and Brussels.

It will be some time before a final and sound judgement can be reached on ‘The Future We Want’. Too many issues in the document have been deferred to processes that will be steered by the UN General Assembly. The guillotine on negotiations also helped to place more emphasis on where much of the real action on sustainable development is happening: in civil society, in bi-lateral and other government partnerships, and in multi billion dollar investments by the private sector. Examples of all of these were on show in Rio and underlined the gap that has opened up beetween the state of formal UN negotiations and the real world legacy of the 1992 Rio ‘Earth Summit’ that continues to inspire activity. Voluntary commitments are being recorded here it has been estimated that some $500 billion worth of investments have already been made. Some of the biggest financial commitments were announced by organisations in the Global South, including a $175 billion transport investment by the Asian Development Bank and partners. Back in the negotiating rooms, discussions about a new green economy stalled, meanwhile, and the Europeans had to lick their wounds as countries like Bolivia and Ecuador fiercely resisted any attempt to impose a new development model that includes a corporate-driven agenda to commodify the functions and cycles of nature.

The most interesting outcome from the Rio+20 event was a realisation that the West’s power to define development – even green versions – has begun to recede. Newly emerging powers such as Brazil are bringing a new emphasis to the table on new forms of democratic participation, the social dimension and jobs.

Full coverage of the negotiations and a brief analysis written by my colleagues at the IISD’s Earth Negotiations Bulletin

I am a lecturer in sustainable development and governance at the School of Law, Queens University Belfast. I also conduct work at United Nations negotiations on the environment for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

My book on the attention economy and mindfulness as commons was published by Routlege in June 2017. See A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: Reclaiming the Mindful Commons (Routledge Studies in Sustainability)

My research interests include consumerism, green politics and the economy. I locate myself firmly to the left of the political spectrum. I write in a personal capacity.

Born in Donegal, I was raised in Derry and now reside in Belfast with my family.