Voluntary Commitments—The Way Forward After Rio+20?

The Rio+20 conference has been seen by many as largely a failure, given a tepid official statement that avoided any meaningful new action on behalf of sustainable development.  Some observers, however, argue that this is the wrong focus.  In the aftermath of Rio, Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote that “the international community does not need another treaty or agenda. There are already hundreds of unfilled international environmental sustainability goals.”  That’s a fair point, to say the least.  I, for one, would have been happy if governments had jettisoned the wordy outcome document and instead given unambiguous signals that they were getting serious about living up to past promises.

Scherr argues that “What really mattered in Rio were the hundreds of ‘non-globally-negotiated’ specific commitments made by countries, communities, and corporations to take action now.”  Laudably, NRDC has set up a dedicated Website, called “Cloud of Commitments,” which is “an aggregator of Rio+20 commitment registries, platforms, events, and announcements.”

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janiero, Brazil (Photo via Flickr, by photog63

The site provides a searchable overview of promises made by “hundreds of coalitions, networks, partnerships, and other initiatives coming together to take action on energy, water, cities, and other key sustainability challenges.” Cloud of Commitments draws on information made available by the Rio+20 Secretariat, as well as initiatives such as Sustainable Energy for All, the UN Global Compact, the Corporate Eco Forum, the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLOCAT), Earth Summit Watch, and The Access Initiative.

Speaking in January 2011, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon referred to such initiatives as the “free-market revolution for global sustainability”.  Some of these efforts have had good results.  SLOCAT, for instance, was instrumental in getting several multilateral development banks to announce that they were gong to invest $175 billion in transport alternatives over the next decade. The Access Initiative is playing a critical role in pushing governments to provide their citizens with better access to data and thus greater transparency.


Still, is this the way forward?  A number of questions come to mind:

First, how meaningful are individual commitments?  For instance, General Motors made a commitment to “achieve landfill-free status at 100 manufacturing sites and 25 nonmanufacturing sites, which will conserve natural resources, and reduce associated life cycle environmental impacts.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but the main environmental impact of an automobile manufacturer is in terms of how much fuel its vehicles consume, and the most meaningful commitment would be to dramatically raise fuel economy.  This is still a process (rightly) driven by government.  In the United States, the Obama Administration announced new standards a year ago that will require cars and light trucks to reach an average of 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025.

Second, how ambitious are individual commitments?  A reference framework is needed to evaluate how much a particular commitment reduces a company’s (or other actor’s) ecological footprint.

Third, do the commitments add up?  Are they, in their totality, sufficient to generate the kind of urgent change needed to stave off environmental calamity?  I wager that no one knows the answer, because there is no easy way to aggregate individual promises that focus on vastly different issues, involve incompatible metrics, and are built around diverging target dates and baselines.

Fourth, who tracks whether commitments are actually being fulfilled?  As always, civil society groups may seek to inject some accountability into the process, but given that commitments are voluntary, there is no mechanism by which anyone can be compelled to live up to promises made.

Available descriptions of commitments are cryptic, to put it mildly—at most a handful of sentences that do not offer nearly enough information to make an informed judgment.  The commitments are principally driven by proprietary interests rather than a sense of the global public good.  No doubt, serious intent can be found among at least some of the listed commitments, and this will presumably make a difference.  But other commitments may turn out to be little more than feel-good PR exercises.

We still need what was so sorely lacking in Rio, namely a more reliable overall policy framework that can actually drive commitments in a strategic fashion.  That means binding actions, transparency, accountability, and a meaningful voice for communities (especially poor communities).


(Written by Michael Renner) 

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