New Leaders Forum

The Road to Rio+20

This year’s Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development has big implications, including for Asia.

This June, world leaders will congregate in Rio de Janeiro to attend the Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which culminated in 190 heads of state signing several legally binding environmental agreements.

However, Rio+20 is taking a different approach. The summit’s recently leaked zero draft outcome document, entitled “The Future We Want,” requests that governments set their own targets and work voluntarily towards a global green economy, poverty eradication and sustainable development. But such a proposal isn’t without its challenges.  

The Rio+20 zero draft deserves commendation for various reasons. First, it openly recognizes that most countries have largely failed to meet the challenges and obligations as outlined at UNCED. It also reiterates the “multiple interrelated crises” that we currently face, their adverse impacts on development gains over the past two decades, and the various systemic gaps in implementation of prior commitments. These admissions of past failures and present challenges have resulted in commitments to measurable deliverables and goals, outlined in a comprehensive roadmap spanning from 2012 to 2030.

Additionally, a hopeful commentator in The Guardian recently commented: “Global summits don’t deliver success, but they are a prerequisite for making success possible.” This seems a fair assessment; it’s undeniable that international platforms help facilitate knowledge transfer and the exchange of ideas, which are integral elements of pushing forward debate, fuelling policy development, and generating the political will to ensure subsequent policy implementation.

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The optimism surrounding Rio+20’s potential is further supported by precedents that indicate that concerted international government action embedded in a rule-based system can and does work. The most notable example of this is the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which has been described by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.” Ratified by 196 states, the Protocol has resulted in significant decreases in the volume of ozone-depleting chemicals in the atmosphere and early signs of stratospheric ozone recovery – and some commentators see potential for similar success to emerge in the wake of Rio+20.

Rio+20 also rides on the wave of a series of lead-up U.N.-led sustainable development efforts. The most recent of these is U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s ‘Sustainable Energy for All’ initiative, which urges holistic advancement of sustainable development goals by governments, the private sector and other stakeholders through commitments to economic growth, poverty alleviation and environmental protection. Ban’s effort, which have emerged in the wake of the U.N. FCCC and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), reaffirms the U.N. commitment to sustainable development and is helping gather the much-needed political momentum to propel the Rio+20 agenda forward.

We should also commend the United Nation’s long-term planning and perspective beyond Rio+20: the draft contends that Rio+20 is ultimately a cornerstone summit; a launch pad for further action and future commitment, not a be-all-and-end-all event. Rio+20’s goals are aimed at complementing and strengthening pre-existing action development goals like the MDGs, not replacing them. If its potential is fulfilled, Rio+20 will be an integral cog towards the establishment of a comprehensive post-MDG sustainable development framework come 2015.

The sustainable development agenda put forth by Rio+20 is, without a doubt, an important one worth the international community’s immediate and undivided attention. However, progress could be impeded by a number of pressing and as yet unaddressed concerns.

The global financial crisis continues to hog the limelight as the eurozone crunch remains unresolved while unemployment rates continue to hover at 8.5 percent in the U.S. and 9.8 percent in the European Union as of the end of 2011. Pundits are keenly watching the international stage for signs of political change as over 50 countries hold major elections this year.

But a closer look at Rio+20 as an event also reveals several crucial issues that could impede progress. For a start, a key talking point of the draft is its green economy framework. The framework seeks to augment levels of human well-being and social equity while reducing environmental risks and ecological insecurity, with the ultimate aim of achieving sustainable development.

However, the framework hopes to address all manner of challenges from “poverty eradication, food security, sound water management, universal access to modern energy services, sustainable cities, management of oceans and improving resilience and disaster preparedness, as well as public health, human resource development and sustained, inclusive and equitable growth that generates employment” while considering “common but differentiated responsibilities” and being “people-centered and inclusive, providing opportunities and benefits for all citizens and all countries.” These goals appear vaguely worded and although at best could be described as ambitious, they could also be seen as utopian.

To its credit, the draft explicitly recognizes the need for structural adjustments, particularly in the context of developing countries struggling to eradicate poverty and sustain growth.  It also highlights the financial and capacity issues that exist within the existing intergovernmental framework for addressing environmental challenges. In response to these challenges, the draft calls for increased autonomy, financial support, and an increased leadership role of the Nairobi-based U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), with a view to elevating its status to that of other specialized agencies such as the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization. However, as the conference’s key thematic areas run the entire gamut of global issues from food, water, natural disasters and energy to Small Island developing States and gender equality, this apparent lack of focus could result in diluted resources and commitment to resolving each (or any) of these challenges.

Moreover, while commitments to action are an important outcome of any international conference, it remains to be seen whether Rio+20 will push the envelope and inject greater pragmatism, purpose, ambition and political will into the negotiation process. The public has rightly grown cynical over the déjà vu of past negotiations floundering due to unfulfilled voluntary pledges, a lack of urgency, goal pushbacks, open-ended vagaries or bureaucratic mire. The mushrooming of “expert groups,” “special representatives” and “super-committees” as part of the new global problem-solving paradigm hasn’t helped either.

Additionally, states putting their names to resolutions, signing protocols and ratifying treaties have become a norm in international governance. The symbolic political value of such acts mustn’t be undervalued; however, whether such acts are truly meaningful in terms of producing tangible results is debatable. Disappointingly, global multilateral successes akin to the Montreal Protocol remain few and far between.

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To a degree, the success of Rio+20 also hinges on the attendance of key global players and here, the waters are murky. U.S. President Barack Obama isn’t expected to attend as he competes for his second term in office, and there’s no definitive word on who will be appearing in his stead. There are rumors, but no confirmation, of the attendance of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

In consideration of both the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, it’s perhaps wise to look to Rio+20 with cautious optimism. Certainly, Rio+20 has the potential to become more than an elite talk-shop, but global summits in and of themselves aren’t guarantors of success. But all isn’t lost. As former Australian diplomat and Greenpeace International director Paul Hohnen said, “A formal agreement is best, but is not the only game-changing solution”. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether Rio+20 will turn all the keys necessary to prompt change – namely political will, financial support, and follow-through action. The journey to Rio+20 continues.

Ong Suan Ee is Senior Research Analyst at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.