Rio+20: Right direction, wrong speed

20 June 2012

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager, The Climate Group analyzes the latest 49-page draft political declaration for the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

RIO DE JANEIRO: Government negotiators reached agreement yesterday on the draft political declaration for the Rio+20 Earth Summit. The 49 page text is the culmination of over 12 months of discussions, thousands of submissions from governments and non-state actors, and much horse-trading.

The text, which will be considered and adopted by ministers over the next few days as they gather for the high-level segment of the summit, has already drawn criticism from environmental and other civil society groups. Many of the elements that had been sought by non-governmental organisations have been watered down or are missing.

Strengthened action on fossil fuel subsidies elimination – an outcome called for by business and environmental groups alike – is one example, with countries simply reiterating current, voluntary (and largely unmet) commitments.

At a gathering of business leaders yesterday, Chinese diplomat and Secretary General for the Rio+20 Summit, Sha Zukang, highlighted the following key outcomes in the draft text:

  • Agreement to establish a set of Sustainable Development Goals – or ‘SDGs’ – and a process for making this happen;
  • Agreement on the definition of the ‘Green Economy’ and its importance as a means of achieving sustainable development;
  • Agreement to establish a high-level political forum to energise follow up to the commitments made in Rio;
  • Agreement to strengthen the UN Environment Program (UNEP);
  • Agreement to enhance engagement with the private sector and develop partnerships;
  • An invitation to the private sector to incorporate sustainable development indicators in corporate reports;
  • Recognition of the need to move beyond GDP as the main means of measuring development progress and requesting the UN Statistical Commission to work with other bodies to launch a program of work in this area;
  • Agreement to establish mechanism to ensure implementation, especially for the delivery of finance and technology;
  • Agreement to establish a ten-year framework on sustainable production and consumption;
  • Establishment of a register for voluntary commitments;
  • Reaffirmation of political commitment to sustainable development and the principles adopted in 1992 – including that of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR);
  • Enhanced recognition of the role of environmental, business, science and the other major non-state groupings recognised by the UN.

As a ‘political declaration’ none of these actions or the many other points in the text are binding on governments. Much of the detail also still needs to be worked out, for example, on the SDGs. As some business leaders noted this work is in many ways an unnecessary distraction, since the broad solutions are already known and just need to be implemented.

The real value of the document perhaps lies in the fact that it provides another means of holding political leaders to account. On its own it will not change the world, but it does at least maintain the direction of travel towards, low(er) carbon, sustainable economies. A lowest common denominator outcome, perhaps – but not a failure either (at least from a political perspective).

The challenge now is scaling up both action and ambition – not accidently, the key theme of yesterday’s Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD) meeting organised by WBCSD, ICC and the UN Global Compact. The good news is that the businesses present in Rio – the leading 20% – get this. Their role now is to convince the other 80%.

As ministers begin their discussions and move to adopt the draft text, it is arguably more important than ever for leading businesses to shout about their successes, enthusiasm and commitment to sustainable development. By doing so they can create the political space for governments to implement the long-term policies businesses are seeking, allowing them to deliver the smarter, better, more prosperous world that all participants here in Rio want.

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