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Making Rio+20 a Success

By Morgan Bazilian, Alan Miller and Daniel M. Kammen

Out of the sighs of one generation are kneaded the hopes of the next. –Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Brazilian novelist, poet, and playwright (1839 – 1908)

The June 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, commonly referred to as Rio+20, provides the global community an opportunity for a critically needed stocktaking on what is known and effective about measures to create ‘green’ and locally vibrant economies (see e.g., UNEP’s Green Economy Report). The subject matter is broad and complex, and thus is prone to cliché in public discourse, and also to difficulty in building international support for specific actionable items. Can local (or global) currencies emerge that reflect the cost of global environmental degradation, or even more localized issues such as water quality or forest resilience, and respond to the realities of resource constraints in a world of rapidly rising consumer demand? Can poverty alleviation be accomplished consistent with environmental and fiscal constraints?

How to gauge the progress to date in such a complex ecosystem of projects and motivations is not simple.  How should the international community, stinging from a lack of progress on the design of coherent, global response to the risks of climate change, be both honest about the state of ‘sustainability science’ and praxis?  While many exciting individual initiatives exist, more is needed, specifically, new and vibrant proposals for action both within and outside of the final negotiated text As an example, the UN has launched a major initiative on  Sustainable Energy for All (also see e.g., WRI’s “A Compilation of Green Economy Policies, Programs, and Initiatives from Around the World”).

The ‘Green Economy’ focus of the Conference was chosen in part to differentiate this meeting from the focus on global environmental issues in 1992. As progress on poverty has seen more tangible successes than in the environment area in general, it offers an important focus for negotiations and coalition-building.  The complex pre-negotiations of a UN-based consensus processes coupled with the financial realities of the economics of many countries, have led some, indeed many, to criticize that negotiation process as being ineffectual – or sub-optimal – or perhaps even misdirected.  And yet, the stated objective of Rio+20 seems to reinforce these notions, and sets the stage for a rather mundane discussion: “…to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation…and address new and emerging challenges.”

The political rhetoric and calls to action that are, and will continue to, emerge in the run-up to Rio+20, while well intentioned, are often not useful — either because they are devoid of substance, or misinformed, or simply naïve about their influence on the outcome. Of course, there are many exceptions to this, as the proposals about the definition and agreement on a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from the Governments of Columbia and Guatemala show. The reality remains that sustainable development is rarely encompassed in an individual ministry, and its cross-cutting nature makes it a low priority operationally; this is exacerbated due to silo thinking in governments or businesses – even within the Brazilian government, reportedly more than a dozen ministries and agencies have been involved in planning the meetings. Further, the integration of ecological, cultural, and economic sustainability for Rio+20 mean that everyone may listen to the issues, but few see action as a priority where their office or agency stand to be rewarded for leadership.

Indeed, building the “Green Economy” might not be the right terminology to use at all because it skirts the issue of the ‘black and red’ of more hide-bound accounting practices that still carry the day in virtually all budgets and boardrooms. As an example, some have proposed that a focus on resource efficiency (see e.g., McKinsey’s “Resource Revolution”) would allow for a more recognizable role for policy and regulation, while the recipients of the Blue Planet Prize (like many before them) have highlighted the need to replace GDP with a more meaningful metric encompassing other metrics of sustainability. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm on the ‘road to Rio+20’ is important because it highlights, even if for a short time, the need to assess the status of both scientific and political approaches to sustainable economies. The hundreds of submissions received on the Zero Draft are a testament to this engagement.

Ultimately, the world’s poor do not benefit from language in a UN document that simply proposes a renewed commitment to sustainable development – something more is required. The documents from the UNCED (Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration), were followed ten years later by the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI). Collectively, they hold a wealth of good text on the various issues encompassed under the term sustainable development. It is clear then that reiteration of broad principles is not needed. Still, previous incarnations of this event showed that it can do some things well. It can birth ideas, projects, partnerships, and organizations (e.g., the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Or from Rio+10, the hundreds of Type II Partnerships established – such as GNESD, GVEP and REEEP), and help people understand an important vocabulary. In addition, related UN-convened international events – like the Millennium Summit in 2000 – helped devise disaggregated indicators of progress (in that case towards the Millennium Development Goals). Augmenting and refining such measurement and reporting on specific SDGs is likely to be one of the most effective and feasible ways to produce tangible outcomes. All of those items should be pursued with vigor.

A recent essay by Michel Rocard adds some useful insight about the process. He writes, “In an effort to avoid resolutions or measures that expose their disagreements, the world’s great powers have adopted the habit of organizing worldwide debates and conferences that revert to decision-making by consensus. [As a result, the] UN has become the ‘general operator’ for global conferences…[and it] is increasingly taking the blame for these conferences’ failures, which not only leave the issues unresolved, but also undermine the UN’s authority.”

He concludes by suggesting the issues be transacted instead at the General Assembly – and with its associated voting rules, which would allow for action without complete consensus. Perhaps though, the inability of global conferences to deliver grand results has more to do with external factors such as the economy and political will than the structure of the conferences themselves. In addition, at a time when other convening powers, like the G20, are deeply engaged in similar topics, it becomes unclear where the primary or optimal fora really lie.

The current text (in the January 2012 Zero draft) on providing energy access for all is as well-focused as one could hope. (But, as an example, the text on water seems much more diffuse.) The text itself on energy is not especially earth-shaking — the JPOI has much more on the subject – but a call towards undertaking specific targets, providing new financial resources, and producing a specific delivery vehicle are well tuned to what Rio+20 can realistically produce. The institutionally related text on whether UNEP should move from a Program to an Organization (while rather opaque to the public) is the type of organizational reform also attainable from such conferences. However, a theological adhesion to a more participative style of global governance (the “jazzier dance of improvisational solution oriented partnerships (WRI)”), one highly touted at Rio+10 and conceptually attractive, is not the full solution.

Let us try a different, more inclusive, approach this time: Lower the hype, bring in humility, recognize the constraints governments are struggling under, build partnerships outside of the negotiated text, and focus on the transactable– such as in discreet aspects in the areas of energy, water and food or new and dedicated funding instruments. Focus less on high-minded rhetoric (or side-event and gala dinner design) and more on practical, if modest measures amenable to verification and measurement. That may lead us towards a more broad range of approaches at different levels of jurisdiction and across different national and regional groupings that appears as the most robust way forward. We can do better – the lessons from similar past events are still fresh in the public consciousness. The millions of people who migrated to the cities of Brazil and live near the Conference venue in the favelas certainly deserve a coherent international response that delivers action they can witness.

UNCTAD (WP #205, 2012) is blunt about the realities of the related political goals and rhetoric, noting, “Green growth naively postulates that technological progress and structural change would be sufficient to uncouple economic from [greenhouse gases] and resources/material consumption growth, without questioning the existing asymmetrical market structures, related supply-chain governance, and economic driving forces (dematerialized growth will remain an illusion under the prevailing capitalist accumulation imperative).” While this type of ‘directness’ is rare and useful to inject into the context of the upcoming event in Rio – it does not need to dissuade us from aspirations. Rather it helps clarify the need for small steps and foundations.

As Thoreau wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”


Morgan Bazilian is the Energy Advisor of the Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Alan Miller is the Principal Climate Change Specialist in the Environment Department at the International Finance Corporation.

Daniel Kammen is the Distinguished Professor of Energy and the University of California, Berkeley

The authors would like to thank Reid Detchon and Iain MacGill for their contributions.

The views reflected here are of the authors alone and do not reflect organizational positions.