The North-South Institute



Rio+20 in a Changing World

June 14, 2012


The North-South Institute

Next week, world leaders will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as Rio+20. The conference will mark the 20th anniversary of the historic first Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

As Helen J. Chenard and I discuss in our new NSI Backgrounder, the first Earth Summit was held in the wake of the Cold War and attended by over 100 heads of state, including then Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and then US President George H. W. Bush, at a time when the world was brimming with optimism. It was a significant UN conference that raised expectations about the world’s capacity to solve pressing global issues and build a more sustainable future.

This time around, things look a little different. A disappointing outcome on climate change in Copenhagen, a global recession, and shifting geopolitical dynamics which make negotiations more complex mean that expectations for Rio+20 are low.  Preparatory negotiations have been laggard, and key leaders, such as US President Barack Obama,have confirmed that they will not attend.  A number of high profile groups, such as the Elders, have expressed their disappointment with the lack of urgency demonstrated in the lead-up to the conference.

Priorities for the conference, outlined in the zero draft of the outcome document, and in the leaked negotiating text, include securing renewed political commitment for sustainable development, supporting the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and enhancing the institutional framework for sustainable development.  A number of issues remain contentious and reaching consensus will be difficult.  Take, for example, the green economy. This is an approach which, according to the UN, requires a move away from resource-intensive growth models and a transformation in production and consumption patterns. The European Union has been a strong supporter of such a move, while the Group of 77 and China have stressed states’ sovereign right to exploit their own natural resources and their right to choose an appropriate path toward a green economy.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have received considerable attention in the lead-up to Rio+20, not least because they have the potential to be a “tangible win” at a conference where prospects for agreeing concrete actions are dim.  These would be measureable targets against which to track global progress on sustainable development – similar to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are set to expire in 2015. From an international development perspective, the SDGs could be a vehicle for bringing back together the international development and environment agendas – agendas which have largely been on parallel paths over the past two decades.  Critical in the Rio+20 negotiations will be which issues these new goals will cover, which countries will be required to take action, and how the SDGs and post-MDG framework will fit together.

While concrete commitments by member states at Rio+20 may be limited, the conference has generated a plethora of new analysis, supported a global dialogue and fostered partnerships on sustainable development among civil society groups and among private sector organizations. The agenda is huge and expectations are low, but there will be some concrete outcomes at Rio.  For international development, this will likely be the SDGs, and the placement of the environment and sustainability more squarely on the international development agenda.