“The Rio conference is over before it has even started.” This was a common reaction among many participants and observers at Rio+20, following the release of what became the final conference agreement, The Future We Want, by the Brazilian hosts three days before the end of the gathering. This happened even before heads of state arrived in Rio—ostensibly to negotiate and ultimately endorse a declaration that could unite governments in the face of rising environmental, social, and economic challenges.
The Guardian’s environment correspondent Fiona Harvey explained that Brazil removed every item of controversy from the negotiation text: “As a result, there were no discussions of any substance because there was nothing to discuss. The text was so anodyne there was nothing in it which could be disagreed.” Indeed, the high-level segment of the conference could best be described as anti-climactic.
In no way does the official text, The Future We Want, live up to the vision its title promises. Some observers offered an unvarnished assessment. Executive Director of Greenpeace International Kumi Naidoo deemed it “the longest suicide note in human history.”
Even with the knowledge that Rio+20 was unlikely to provide the kind of breakthrough needed to finally confront the massive environmental and social problems before us, it’s still easy to be disappointed. The text is replete with formulations like “we reaffirm,” “we recognize,” “we acknowledge,” and “we recall.” These phrases emphasize how sorely lacking a set of concrete new commitments and actions are from the document.
The text profoundly disappoints, for instance, when discussing the prospect of green jobs—which ought to be at the core of a sustainable economy that works for the vast majority of people on this planet:
“We are encouraged by government initiatives to create jobs for poor people in restoring and managing natural resources and ecosystems, and we encourage the private sector to contribute to decent work for all and job creation for both women and men, and particularly for the youth, including through partnerships with small and medium enterprises as well as cooperatives. In this regard, we acknowledge the importance of efforts to promote the exchange of information and knowledge on decent work for all and job creation, including green jobs initiatives and related skills, and to facilitate the integration of relevant data into national economic and employment policies.”
Such generalities represent a massive step back from the so-called “zero draft” that was published in January 2012 and was based on inputs from a wide variety of stakeholders from around the world. (Worldwatch was part of a “Sustainable Cities Working Group” organized by the Ford Foundation and coordinated by Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Working Group submitted a set of proposals for the zero draft.)
In the Rio+20 outcome text, government leaders declare, “We are determined to reinvigorate political will and to raise the level of commitment by the international community to move the sustainable development agenda forward…” Yet, this is little more than clever wordsmithery to cover up an ugly but unavoidable truth— that many governments have effectively abdicated their responsibility in the face of grave danger for humanity.
This failure to act is the product of many factors. One is simply a lack of vision. Another is that many governments are cozy with existing economic power structures, and the influence of money on politics inhibits needed change. There is also, understandably, fear of embarking on an unknown journey. And the “international community” is such a collection of unequal entities—with vastly different levels of power and widely diverging interests—that it is challenging in the extreme to find a sufficiently ambitious common denominator among the 192 member states of the UN.
The final portion of the conference document might be seen as throwing a bit of a lifeline to those who will argue that Rio+20 was worth the expense of time, effort, and carbon after all. In a superbly written analysis, ”Life After Rio”, Mark Halle of the International Institute for Sustainable Development writes:
“The final third of the outcome … identifies priorities in a wide array of areas ranging from oceans, cities and food security to water, sustainable consumption, economic development and institutional design. […] It is not that it embodies firm undertakings or calls for action that are targeted, specific and accountable. It is more that it offers hooks on which different stakeholders can hang their hopes. By referring to the specific language in the outcome document, they can claim that their special topic was endorsed by the world’s governments in Rio and therefore constitutes a legitimate priority for attention.”
This, one might argue, is how the world will end: in the face of protracted inaction, there will always be a faint promise that perhaps next time round, governments will finally deliver. This is the same illusion that makes thousands of people trek to successive annual climate conferences, from Bali and Poznan to Copenhagen and Cancun, and on to Durban and Qatar.
Fundamentally, the problem in Rio, as before in Johannesburg 10 years ago or indeed at the climate negotiations of recent years, is that governments are highly averse to making meaningful commitments, especially those that challenge established economic structures and corporate interests.
Too many decision-makers think that they are being asked to take painful, unpopular measures. We need to move away from this conception. We need to think not in terms of avoiding actions we don’t want to take, but in terms of identifying ways in which we can cooperate with each other in positive ways.
The point of a historic United Nations conference like Rio+20 is to marshal political will and establish an overall enabling framework for sustainability, providing positive reinforcement for those who act and penalties for those who refuse to act. But it seems we need to rely much more on coalitions of the willing—actors that are moving ahead now and take advantage of the opportunities of greener economies, ready to show a way to those who are reticent and who apply the brakes at every opportunity.
These coalitions should not be thought of as blocks of countries, but rather as bringing together diverse actors across boundaries. They might group together cities, progressive businesses, trade unions, grassroots citizen groups, and others, formulating specific goals and commitments. Such coalitions of the willing would not be closed clubs, smugly content with their pioneering status, but rather be open to others, and continuously challenging each other for further improvement.
Cities, for instance, are already important actors, and a coalition of 58 megacities was very active in Rio under the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group banner. Another example is the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT), which includes UN organizations, multilateral development banks (MDBs) and other development organizations, NGOs, and business sector organizations. SLoCaT was instrumental in bringing about a pledge in Rio by the eight largest MDBs to invest $175 billion to finance more sustainable transportation systems over the coming decade.
Still, voluntary action on its own will not save the planet. Pioneering action needs to be combined with a set of increasingly ambitious goals, and will over time need to transform into binding norms and requirements. Serious consideration should be given to preferential treatment accorded to those actors who commit to meaningful action. Yes, this would fly in the face of current rules, especially those of the World Trade Organization. But those rules take no account of the environmental and social challenges humanity faces, and we must challenge them.
(Written by Michael Renner, Edited by Cameron Scherer and Antonia Sohns)