Rio+20: Meaningful progress or lost opportunity?


How to move forward with progress on sustainability following Rio+20 – the short name for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development that was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 – was the subject of discussion by a panel of experts at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, on September 12.  The speakers on the panel made it clear that, while there is much ongoing activity, and many voluntary pledges are being made, much more action, and much more accountability for implementing commitments, is needed to address global sustainability needs in the future.

Archived webcast and speaker presentations from the Woodrow Wilson Center panel

Rio+20 was a huge gathering, drawing about 100 presidents and prime ministers, 12,000 representatives of 191 nations, 10,000 representatives of nongovernmental organizations, 4,000 journalists, and thousands of business executives, mayors, experts, and advocates, with thousands of events held at venues around Rio.

Media reports from the conference were less than optimistic that the event would produce significant new binding commitments by the world’s governments on sustainable development, and they were for the most part right.  With several key leaders from the most powerful developed nations not in attendance, the conference was handicapped from the start.  Some leaders of major international environmental organizations, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, contended that multinational corporations had hijacked the event.

The official “Outcome Document” from the conference left advocates of strong, binding international agreements disappointed.  So what, if anything, was accomplished at this conference, and what are some of the next steps needed in moving forward?

At the Woodrow Wilson Center, panelist Jacob Sherr, Director of Global Strategy and Advocacy at the National Resource Defense Council, said the “main event was not the main event.”  Although the outcome document that was “thrown together at the last minute” of the conference only reaffirmed previous commitments to sustainability, Scherr contended that the gathering strongly affected the discussion of sustainability on a global level.  This could be seen as the really significant takeaway from the conference.   In his presentation, “Promise and Progress at Rio + 20,” Scherr called attention to the large number of voluntary commitments to sustainability projects made by governments, business, and civil society groups, including commitments to take specific actions to promote a rapid transition to a low-carbon green economy.  He called for a web-based “registry” of the many voluntary commitments, to make them transparent to the public and watchdog groups. With the interconnectedness through social media and other Internet communications, communities around the world can work together to hold governments and corporations accountable for implementing their commitments and push for meaningful results.

Along with elevating the importance of sustainability in political discussions, some multinational corporations previously absent from these discussions are now beginning to account for “natural capital” in their business decisions because of Rio+20, said Michelle Lapinski, Director of Corporate Practices at the Nature Conservancy.  By implementing sustainable business practices, corporations can address their own impacts on the global system.

A key conclusion that all the panelists appeared to agree on is that governments and international organizations alone will not be the answer to the problems of sustainable development.  Businesses, nonprofit organizations, and local communities must lead a “bottom up” approach to incorporating environmental practices into their activities.  Several Fortune 500 companies made pledges to reduce their impacts and develop more sustainable business practices.

Reid Detcehon, VP for Energy and Climate at the United Nations Foundation, gave a presentation on the Sustainable Energy for All initiative.  He emphasized the central importance of a sustainable energy transition as “the golden thread that weaves together the economic, social and environmental strands of sustainable development.” Sustainable energy “can reduce energy poverty and drive economic growth, expand equity, reduce climate risks, and protect the environment.” He said many organizations worldwide are making voluntary commitments to support energy efficiency and renewable energy access.

Detcheon offered the most sobering statement on the conference.  What was missing from this entire conference, and in many ways all dialogue today on the issue, is the lack of urgency to mend our faltering world.  “Agreements don’t lead to outcomes,” Detcheon said.  Of the roughly 90 international agreements since the first Earth Summit in 1992, only 4 have been completed successfully, including the banning of CFCs to protect the ozone layer and movement away from leaded gasoline.  For real change to occur, there must be sufficient political will to act.  In the current political context, leaders are not feeling enough pressure from their constituencies to even talk about sustainability and climate change, let alone actually dealing effectively with the most urgent global problems of the twenty-first century.

Moving forward, much must change in order to realize a sustainable future.  Continued dialogue between world leaders, corporations, and stakeholders, with transparency and accountability for achieving results, must be at the forefront of solving problems.  The lack of urgency from leading developed nations is currently holding back progress.  Future environmental conferences must instill a sense of urgency in not only government leaders but all stakeholders that broad action must be undertaken with urgency.

The proposed creation of a central registry to track environmental commitments agreed upon during these conferences would be one good immediate step in the right direction.  Without accountability and enforcement, almost every agreement made in the past has yet to fulfill its goals.  Being able to hold each party accountable would give these international agreements greater weight.

The presentations from the panelists suggest that no governmental action or international organization will be effective in addressing the problems of sustainability without very broad participation and much greater political pressure.  And as Reid Detcheon said, “The youth must stand up and shout at the old people of this world, stop destroying my future.”

Official website of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development

Earlier post:  Have multinationals hijacked Rio+20?



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