Rio + 20 – A Step Forward?

In the following article, the author evaluates the road to the 'Rio +20' Conference and its potential implications.

In 2012, Rio de Jeneiro will witness a deja-vu. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as the Rio + 20, will see world leaders, political and developmental organization and green crusaders descend on the Brazilian city from where it all started 20 years ago.

Marking 20 years since the historic Earth Summit, and 40 years since the Stockholm Convention on Human Environment, the Rio + 20 summit scheduled for June, 2012 is envisaged to shape the course for the future of global sustainable initiatives. With the twin objectives of “securing Political commitment for sustainable development” and “assessing progress towards internationally agreed commitments”, the summit will be a culmination of a long drawn process to engage civil and political stakeholders including the heads of State and Government or other representatives.

In addition to the aforementioned objectives, the UN has also resolved to address new and emerging challenge, through the conference. The first preparatory committee (prep-com 1), further detailed these as : The Financial Crisis, Food Crisis, Migration, Energy Crisis, Water Scarcity, Biodiversity and Ecosystem loss, Desertification, Natural Disasters and the ability to prepare for and recover from them, Achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, Globalization, Health Security, Increased resilience at the national and global level, and Climate Security.

The organization of conference is being coordinated by the Secretary General of the Rio +20 conference and a Bureau of elected representatives from each region. To supporttheir work, a secretariat has been established under the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In addition, all entities under the UN, including Funds, Programmes, Regional Commissions, etc are invited to attend the meetings and participate in the operations through designated Rio+ 20 focal points. Inputs from civil stakeholders, namely, Women, Children and Youth, Indigenous people, Non-Governmental Organizations, Local Authorities, Workers and Trade Unions, Business and Industry, Scientific and Technological Community and Farmers, are also solicited.

Timelines and Next Steps

The following timeline of the process represents the meetings mandated by the Bureau responsible for the process and the content of the conference. In addition to these, the bureau has also mandated 5 regional preparatory meetings organized in the five Economic Commissions of the UN. Organized in collaboration with UN entities and regional partners, there meetings are intended to enable aggregation and discussion on regional issues and concerns.

Where do we stand?

At this juncture, as the countdown ticker to the summit reads 200 odd days, a stock taking becomes imperative to understand the progress towards agreed objectives.

Assessing progress towards internationally agreed commitments

Combatting sustainable development challenges has evolved into a perennial battle; many conferences have taken place, resulting in many multilateral agreements. However, in the absence of quantifiable goals, in most cases, these have just become tools for rhetoric.

The UNEP released a report titled ‘Keeping Track of the Changing Environment’, which summed up the changes that took place from 1992 onwards. The report highlights that 14 major agreements exist on environmental issues, namely the Basel Convention, Cartagena Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna, and Flora, Convention on Migratory Species, World Heritage Convention, Kyoto Protocol, Secretariat for the Vienna Convention and for the Montreal Protocol, Ramsar Convention, Rotterdam Convention, Stockholm Convention, Convention to Combat Desertification, Convention on the Law of the Sea and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Most countries have signed 9 out these 14, signifying that the real problem exists not with the lack of institutional framework, but rather their teething.

Augmenting the concerns is the fact that despite multiple efforts at many levels, performance on environmental and social indicators has deteriorated in the 20 year period. (See Figure below)


The original Earth Summit of 1992 was hailed as the first major conference on sustainable development. The conference resulted in many actions including the Agenda 21, The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, The Statement of Forest Principles, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Of these, only the latter two were legally binding, but failed to provide for numerical targets. Additionally, progress was also hampered as funds were not forthcoming due to recessionary pressures on countries. This also resulted in an ongoing debate between broadly classified ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries on who should be made to pay for polluting the environment and a calling for ‘you first’, in light of the western economic turmoil.

Securing Political commitment for sustainable development

Realizing that commitment is preempted by the stakeholder identification of needs and problems, the Rio +20 is working on cascading levels to ensure regional and local problems are captured. In a major step to ensure commitment through increasing engagement, all stakeholders, - governments, intergovernmental agencies and civil society have been asked to contribute to a working document, which would then form the basis for the outcome document (colloquially referred to as the zero draft of the outcome document).

Despite this, the past report card begs the question “what will be the potential outcome of Rio +20 summit?” Would it lead to a mere reaffirmation that environmental and social sustainability continues to be an issue that plagues the world or would it result in a ground breaking step forward in achieving the goals, that have been well identified by a multitude of treaties.


Rio + 20 – A step backwards?

As the preparations for the conference gain full steam many experts wonder whether eight (8) days for preparatory committee meetings provides sufficient time to cover all issues. In addition, a few other concerns have been raised.
The broad theme of the conference focuses on a ‘Green Economy in the context of Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication’and the ‘Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development’. The first preparatory committee meeting further set the tone for this discussion by agreeing to establish a coherent and international definition for green economy (which is conspicuously absent) and restructuring the existing institutional framework consisting of the UNEP, the COP, the WTO, the CSD and othersuch institutions.

In the background of African countries’ walkout from the previous COP meet at Copenhagen and foreseen failure of the Durban meet due to the lack of common ground between the North and South, it makes one wonder if such a desired overhaul of goals and governing bodies is (a) achievable and (b)susceptible to being skewed in favor of the more vociferous or powerful group.

Several stakeholder bodies and countries have raised concerns as to whether attaching a cost to erstwhile free resources, in a bid to ‘greening the economy’, would be sufficient to mitigate the impact on the vulnerable stakeholders and environment. The immediate fallout of this could be that the business world adapts to the change; while passing the cost on to the ultimate consumers.

What can we expect?

Rio+20 has taken a positive step in the direction of understanding why the earlier commitments have failed to have the impact that they set out to achieve. The conflicting objectives and developmental needs of countries, lack of agreement of the ‘environmental space’ each country should be allowed and most importantly, a consensus on who pays for the cleanup, are some of the reasons why progress is stalled. Thus the success of the conference hinges on the alleviation of pressing national concerns, as also an incorporation of the belief that the need for sustainable development is a boon and not a bane.
With all eyes on Rio+20, let us hope that the world does not witness a deja-vu.

The author, Shradha Kapur is a Senior Associate at a sustainability consulting firm cKinetics.

Image(s) Courtesy:
Jim Linwood
JD Hancock

Author: Shradha Kapur