Defining the agenda for Rio +20: my analysis

Camilla Toulmin's picture
Insight by 
Camilla Toulmin
12 January 2012

The UN draft agenda revealing the vision for Rio +20 sustainable development goals and what might be decided at the conference in June 2012 has been made public and reported on in the media.

The Rio+20 draft text has much to commend it. In less than 20 pages, it lays out a clear vision and timetable for making progress on building a more sustainable planet at Rio in June this year, and to 2015 and beyond. A key summit outcome could be to ask countries to sign up to a number of Global Sustainability Goals to guide the world’s citizens towards prosperity within the confines of our one and only earth.

This is a good plan, as it allows for time to learn, share and reflect on what makes for effective targets under each broad goal, drawing on diverse countries and context. The overall draft text is concise, and offers a vision for the importance of the broad principles underlying global agreement, while seeking to allay some of the concerns around potential pitfalls with a “green economy”. It is remarkably free from the fudge and inconsistency which mars many international texts, and it recognises where more work needs to be done to agree the institutional architecture for managing our global environment.

Strong points

The proposal for an Ombudsman for future generations is a good one to ensure the yet unborn are explicitly recognised and considered in how we manage our planet now. The text also proposes that all listed and large private companies report on their efforts to integrate sustainability into their activities, which is a good starting point but will need sharp teeth to bring corporate performance in line with broader social and environmental goals. The idea of a knowledge-sharing platform on green economy is also excellent, and builds strongly on IIED’s own experience and networks in this field.

Areas that need more emphasis

The text acknowledges the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – as though they were of equal significance. Of course, in the past and even today, many politicians act as though the economy matters most, with environmental considerations to be addressed at some indefinite time in the future. In reality, several planetary boundaries may be tightening in ways which demand much more immediate attention, with limited room for pushing the boundaries further. There may also be plenty of circumstances in which investment in environmental resilience, such as the production of food, furniture, fibre and fuel from sustainably managed forests, far from being at the expense of economic growth, may offer big opportunities for increased employment and prosperity. 

The text acknowledges that governments have sovereign rights over their natural resources but recognises that we live in an ever-more connected world. At some point, these two issues will come into conflict. It also recognises that it is up to governments to provide the broader policy framework that generates stable, long-term incentives for companies and citizens to invest in sustainable and equitable modes of production and consumption. But governments often fail to take longer-term interests into account – they need to remain elected today, not tomorrow –  and often poorly represent the interests of the majority.

The rights and institutions governing control over a nation’s key resources often fail to secure access to them for the poor. Corporate institutions and elite groups with political influence are seeking to appropriate valuable natural resources – land, forests, water – domestically and globally. As planetary boundaries tighten, pressures on those resources will only increase. So people’s rights to those natural resources need strengthening to match the principles and policy framework outlined here, to secure their livelihoods and food security into the future.

We need to ask – given our lack of progress in building more sustainable development over decades - what is going to be different this time? How might the voices of the majority carry more weight? How can we find ways of shifting large-scale investment flows into low carbon systems of energy, shelter, transport and food production, when the strength of vested incumbents remains so great? These questions will need addressing for Rio+ to be hailed a success.

The zero draft text is a good start, but there is a long way to go until governments agree a consensus text in Rio in June. By then many of the ambitious ideas set out here may have been struck out by negotiators, or perhaps bold concepts will be added. There is much to play for over the next five months if we are to achieve a summit outcome which matches the scale of our current challenges and collective aspirations for a fairer, more sustainable way of life.