“Rio +20” – How much of a failure was it?

19/06/2012 at 8:40 pm 1 comment

On 20-22 June, the UN Summit on Sustainable Development, or “Rio +20”, took place.

Some 50,000 people came to the Brazilian city, all with the hope of contributing in some small way to this important UN summit. As we set out in this blog post and in this video blog, expectations for this “too big to fail” summit were sky high.

But international summits have a tendency to disappoint.

(See also this letter)
As Jenny Rei Lavelo points out in this blog, this is often due to the many competing demands made on negotiators.

And there were indeed many different Visions for “Sustainable Development” being presented here. We have set out a few here.
(and click HERE for a more up-to-date list of key articles)

But it would seem that this time around, the summit headed for failure not because there was too much vision, but too little of it.

In the Summit Declaration – negotiated by civil servants since the beginning of the year, and updated in the early hours of 19 June – it was clear that Governments went for quantity rather than quality. The text is full of important-sounding statements, but the crucial paragraphs show very clearly that the negotiators have carefully avoided making any choices at all.

Some of the good things in the text:

  • An unambiguous statement that poverty eradication is “the greatest global challenge facing the world today”
  • A reaffirmation of a “commitment to making every effort to accelerate the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.”
  • A recognition “that people are at the center of sustainable development”
  • An expression of “deep concern” that “one in five people on this planet, or over one billion people, still live in extreme poverty, and that one in seven—or 14 percent—is undernourished.”
  • An affirmation of “the importance of supporting developing countries in their efforts to eradicate poverty and promote empowerment of the poor and people in vulnerable situations”
  • The explicit inclusion of the need for a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the potential for these SDGs to provide a basis for a new, internationally agreed Development framework, to succeed the MDGs.
  • Inclusion of a clear reference to the importance of food security and nutrition.
  • A reiteration of the key principle that the Polluter Pays: rich countries that caused most of the environmental damage should do most to fix it.
  • Article 47 has encouraged some interesting initiatives on corporate sustainability reporting (but falling short of actually shaping those initiatives!)

Some of the biggest disappointments:

  • A lack of recognition that current standards of consumption are unsustainable
  • Among the list of principles Governments “re-affirm” are many statements which have been blatantly ignored so far.
  • A recognition of “the need to accelerate progress in closing development gaps between developed and developing countries” – but not of the need to deliver on the 1992 Rio Summit principles mentioned in the same paragraph (and only a vague mention of “insufficient progress” in the next.
  • The whole section B, containing all the references to guiding principles shows that there is no consensus at all on what “Sustainable Development” really means.
  • Overall, the text “recognises” a great deal of problems, but fails to provide a response to them; instead, negotiators have been content with phrases like ‘commit to promote’ or ‘commit to consider’.
  • There is very little commitment to ending fossil fuel subsidies as a matter of urgency, or to introducing a Financial Transaction Tax
  • The document seems to shelve initiatives related to new mechanisms for sustainable development, such a High Commissioner for Sustainable Development and Future Generations
  • There is too much emphasis on large scale private sector to address challenges of sustainable development with no move from voluntary to mandatory corporate reporting on Human rights and sustainability impacts of activites by multinationals.

In short, there was no clear consensus on what to do at this summit. The EU and US pushed for clear outcomes on issues such as Water, Energy and Fuel, but the developing countries, coordinating in what is known as the G77, argued that, once more, rich countries were telling poorer countries to adopt models and technologies where the West holds all the advantages. Rather than focus on immediate outcomes in Rio, they seemed to be asking for a process to work out the vision for Sustainable Development.

Rio shows: Governments did not rise to the challenge, but others did.

The outcome document is weak, that is clear. Even Ban Ki-moon said “Let me be frank: Our efforts have not lived up to the measure of the challenge.”

But he also, rightly, said that “Rio+20” must be the start. In particular, the start of a global discussion on what an over-arching “Development” framework, that includes the best of the Human Rights framework, the MDGs and Rio’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

One last, tentative conclusion: it may well be that “Rio+20” has shown that the world is not waiting for Governments to catch up. Civil society groups, and private companies, have shown at Rio that they are prepared, and able, to move ahead with tangible initiatives on Sustainable Development. That is to be celebrated. It’s just a pity that Governments have not been able to keep up.

See e.g.:

On 20 June, NGOs told world leaders gathered in Rio: If you adopt the text in its current form, you will fail to secure a future for the coming generations, including your own children.” (https://rio20.un.org/rio20/records/page)

Read more, by using this more up-to-date list of Resources and Commentary


Entry filed under: Government. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Rio+20 Video Blog #2 “Rio +20” fails to deliver for the Planet, for Poor People, or for Future Generations

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. kimbowarichard  |  20/06/2012 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks for this analysis. I just want to add that Rio + 20 leaves a legacy of a lost opportunity because it fails to create something beyond business as usual


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