Thursday, November 15, 2012

Rio+20: Lost cause or Found hope?

Global headlines following the Rio+20 conference this past June may have varied in their phrasing, but the theme was consistent:

Earth Summit: campaigners decry final document – The Guardian
Rio +20: Point of No Return? – Huffington Post
Rio governments will not save planet - George Monbiot
A failure of epic proportions – Greenpeace Press Official Statement

Even the #riofail hashtag trended on twitter. The “failure” refers to the weak outcome document that was light on pledges and vague with respect to language that would commit governments to real gains moving forward. Though a strong agreement was not reached by the member states, this was not entirely surprising.  With an disengaged government in Canada, upcoming elections where environmental issues were not playing a role in the US, as well as the European economic crisis, only four G20 leaders felt it was worthwhile to attend the high-level segment of the conference, despite a meeting in Mexico City where all twenty were present the day before.  Furthermore, the negotiators that were sent from the G8 and G20 countries were often trying to remove the strong language that others were attempting to incorporate in the final outcome document, The Future We Want.  Youth and civil society participants in Rio were so disappointed by the document they staged a sit-in where the document, titled "The Future We Don’t Want" was ripped in half.

If we are to consider the lack of representation, commitment, and substantial targets set, Rio+20 was indeed a failure.  By the end of the meeting the enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation that was supposed to have existed 20 years ago was nowhere to be found.  However, it is not too late for Rio+20 to have a powerful and lasting impact.

A brief look back
As the name implies, June's meeting marked the 20 year anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, but also the initiation of the three Rio conventions (The Convention on Biological Diversity, the United NationsFramework Convention on Climate Change, and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification).  I attended a birthday party in Rio this year (complete with cake!) to mark the occasion.  There environment ministers from 6 countries (including Canada), the heads of each of the conventions, and for good measure UN Ambassador for Biodiversity, Ed Norton, spoke to the importance and relevance of these agreements two decades on.  Indeed, reading the language, targets, and agenda, one would be forgiven for mistaking the documents for ones produced this decade.  They are forward-thinking, adaptive, and propose bold but achievable objectives.  Unfortunately, in all three cases, minimal progress has been made on a global scale, and in most scenarios, the current outlook is far far worse.

While many continue to lament this year's outcome document, no matter how well written or strongly worded it could have been, if countries are unwilling or unable to act, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Who cares if Rio+20 didn’t result in an international agreement with any teeth? As evidenced by the Rio Conventions, progress in this manner is extraordinarily challenging. 

Is there another way?
It was noted on several occasions at the conference that in the last 12 years the Millennium Development Goals – albeit different from the conventions but they address key development issues that are certainly related, including hunger, poverty, and environmental sustainability --  have made far more substantial gains. 

Progress varies from region to region, from goal to goal, but they are almost all moving in a positive direction.

One of the objectives put forward in the “failed” outcome document is a commitment to creating global sustainable development goals, or SDGs. These would operate in a similar manner and likely supplant the MDGs in 2015.  As opposed to legislation, broad goals invite innovation and flexibility.  They can be achieved at local, regional, and national scales and are thus not necessarily reliant upon a national policy to achieve them.  As Jeffrey Sachs, put it, “every 7 year old around the world should know and be able to understand these goals”.  Certainly, despite the arguments for the importance of the Rio Conventions, most people don’t know they exist.  Among those that do, only a small subset actually follow the ins and outs of the annual negotiations with many groups – NGOs, scientists, civil society -- often feeling left by the wayside. 

Are SDGs the answer?  
At the moment they are being developed, with the deadline for memberstates to contribute their preliminary ideas today(!).  Civil society participation is separate, but you can put your two cents in here.  If we are to criticize leaders for their lack of engagement, the least we can do is participate, to not only improve the goals by making them more tangible and relevant to people around the world, but demonstrate that the world does care deeply about these issues, and perhaps help put the “we” back into The Future We Want.

1 comment:

  1. Live stream today of discussions related to post 2015 development agenda: