Rio+20: Key Issues and Outcomes

If one can accept that mega confabs such as Rio+20 are inevitably about more talks, then the text (outcome) of the negotiating document that was finalized at about 3 a.m. on Tuesday, June 19, will not be surprising (or shocking).

At yesterday’s breakfast briefing for funders on inside strategies and groups, organized by the Consultative Group on Biodiversity (CGBD), Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA), and the Funders Network for Transforming Globalization (FNTG), we heard an excellent overview from the South Center.

Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR)
CBDR is one of the fundamental principles of sustainable development and international environmental law for addressing equity that was formulated specifically in the context of the 1992 Rio/Earth Summit. It affirms that all countries have a common responsibility to protect our environment, but these responsibilities are also differentiated. Industrialized countries have a greater responsibility because of their greater contribution to the environmental crisis and because of their higher economic status. The basic premise of CBDR is that if you treat “unequals” equally, you exacerbate inequality.

Twenty years later, almost all wealthy countries, including the E.U. and the U.S., are asserting that no one Rio principle should be singled out and that a general reference to the full set of Rio principles is sufficient. In the end, it was mentioned twice, once less than in the original 1992 text.

Green Economy
Both the term and interpretation of the “green economy” remain highly contested. The green economy, as the roadmap to the future with clear targets, was favored by the E.U. while the U.S. vacillated on their position. The G77 and China have moved from opposing it to questioning it to taking a “need to discuss it more” approach. The outcome for now is that the concept needs to evolve further through more engagement.

Sustainable Development Goals
SDGs are supposed to carry forward the Millennium Development Goals, which end in 2015, as well as integrate sustainability into the MDGs. The EU, UAE and some of the poorer countries favor it. The U.S views it as aspirational. The G77 and China agree on the concept as long as it explicitly advances the three pillars of sustainable development: economic, social, and environmental benefits for all. They want SDGs to be determined through the intergovernmental process in the context of a post-MDG era and a report in 2014 at the UN General Assembly. They oppose creating SDGs outside of the intergovernmental process. SDGs are a potentially important mechanism for addressing the implementation gaps of the last 20 years (i.e., the unmet goals of 1992).

The Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development
IFSD is basically about how to enable a strong compliance regime and meet the governance gap with respect to the current structure of the UN. African countries favor strengthening the UNEP in its home base in Nairobi. The U.S., Canada, Australia, and Japan oppose specific commitments for UNEP, largely because they don’t want to commit additional dollars during uncertain economic times. The E.U. supports it. Since the U.S. is the biggest financial contributor to the UN, the politics of who pays is viewed as the explanation for the difference in position between the U.S. and the E.U. In the end, the agreement was to open the intergovernmental process to all stakeholders and form a high-level forum of 30 representatives nominated by member states. The partnership will make recommendations in 2013 on how to strengthen compliance with respect to existing institutions and bring coherence to the overall system.

Means of Implementation
MOI refers to implementing sustainable development by breaking the link with the fossil fuel-based model of development by providing the necessary financing and technology transfer from rich to poor countries. The rich countries not only opposed making any commitments about the means of implementation, but wanted it deleted it or removed from the text altogether. The rich countries also wanted to delete language that call for a balanced treatment of intellectual property rights. It should be noted that in 1992, the UN secretariat estimated that the rich countries needed to provide $100 billion per year to the poor(er) countries. The poor countries feel that they are being asked to take on more financial and other obligations through the concept of the green economy and sustainable development goals, and that there is backsliding on the commitment for technology transfer. In the end, there has been no commitment on specific dollar amounts or on technology transfer.

Going Forward
Rio+20 has not saved humanity and our planet, but the dialogue must continue. The world is very different compared to 1992—carbon emissions have increased dramatically, as has inequality. But technology, particularly connecting technologies and advances in renewable energy, can be game changers for sustainability and democracy. Stakeholder and civic engagement, capacity building at all levels, public education, and new ways of organizing, mobilizing, and communicating, are essential for negotiating power, resources, and rights in an unequal world. They are the common language for the shared vision of the future we want.

Mafruza Khan is enhancing the field director. This blog originally appeared on the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s blog

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