Earth Summit 2012: Crucial opportunity that needs broader buy-in

As shoppers in New York surged through streets and avenues bedecked with festive offerings, delegates from around the world were summoning up the collective will to make something of the crucial opportunity presented by the Earth Summit in Rio 2012.

Camilla Toulmin's picture
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20 December 2011

Some delegates, jaded by decades of sitting in interminable meetings, intone in plain chant the text they’ve been given to deliver.  Others, bright and cheery, aim to transfer their energy into the larger space and lift the mood. Even if some government representatives sound bored, judging by the packed rooms, the NGO constituency has decided to take Rio2012 seriously. With the halls overflowing, security staff were trying in vain to get people moved off the staircases and fire exits.

It’s always easy to dismiss UN activities as endless hot air, but it’s important to remember that the first Earth Summit led to important outcomes, including the signing of the Climate Change Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Agenda 21 document.

Holding an anniversary event twenty years on from the last Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 might seem like a public relations option, when you have nothing else to say about yourself. But Rio 2012 is more than just a 20th birthday party. It will be only the second time in twenty years that the UN has organised an event on this scale that will consider the environment, sustainable development and economic policy instruments all together.

Sustainable Development goals

One possible outcome from the 2012 Earth Summit is agreement on a set of global sustainability goals and environmental targets which governments can buy into. These would be similar to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), drawn up from the targets laid out in the Millennium Declaration, which was signed by 147 world leaders at the UN Development Summit in 2000. A crucial difference is that while the MDGs have been mainly focused on the role of aid in supporting improvements in least developed countries, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will have to be relevant for high, middle and low income contexts – and also take into account resources not ‘owned’ by any one country, such as the oceans.

Most observers value the focus that the eight MDGs have provided - world leaders pledged to work to eradicate global poverty, hunger and disease, setting eight time-bound targets to be met by 2015. This focus has also helped contain the tendency for donors to dream up new approaches and priorities every couple of years.

A few argue that a focus on eight goals has inevitably meant that some important stuff has got neglected – such as work on governance, which is invisible and less amenable to measurement and monitoring. And, of course, many of the targets have yet to be met. For example, the target to eradicate extreme hunger won’t be met by 2015. And in Sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia, the proportion of hungry people has increased. While child mortality rates are falling, the targets set of reducing by two-thirds the under-five mortality rate are unlikely to be met. But overall, the balance is distinctly positive. Can we do the same for global sustainability?

Certainly the global context has dramatically changed since the late 1990s, when the MDGs were being drawn up. No longer does a North-South axis dominate the planet, based on rich-poor, and donor-recipient nations. Middle-income countries have grown enormously in economic and political power. And the global financial crisis has called into question the primacy of western economic, financial and political power.

Some also worry that sustainability goals will be set in counterpoint to the MDGs, involving the environment brigade, rather than mainstream development people. And there’s debate about how detailed these targets might be. There’s a strong interest in having something tangible to be agreed - practical things to get on with in terms of achieving action on the ground. But there’s precious little time to achieve this between now and June.

The good news is that some developed countries are getting behind them. In November the UK government announced that it would support an initiative to build Sustainable Development Goals. And multilateralism seems alive and well post-Durban. Concerns about the G20 dominating the global debate has led many powerful middle-income countries to exercise leadership in this field; Colombia has been especially active. Important distinct country groups and interests re-emerging out of the G77 also makes for more interesting global politics.

The high-level panel on global sustainability was due to provide its draft on the first day of the meeting last week. Co-chaired by the President of Finland and the President of South Africa, and engaging a series of world figures, the Global Sustainability Panel (GSP) is meant to produce a comprehensive blue print for a low-carbon, sustainable future which is intended to inform relevant intergovernmental discussions, such as Rio+20. Its debates seem to have got bogged down in the inevitable difference in view about whether there is such a thing as “green” growth, and how to deal with trade-offs. Janos Pasztor, the UN Secretary General’s advisor on sustainable development, shrugs his shoulders cheerfully, and sees this as a positive inevitable outcome, given the complexity of the issues. They could have papered over the cracks but have chosen to interrogate the issues at a deeper level. But the panel’s debates have thrown up a number of questions which need answering if a transition to a green economy is going to be a key issue at Rio2012.

Key issues that will need tackling include:

  • developing new indicators for performance which internalise environmental and social costs into economic decision-making, to work alongside Gross Domestic Product and the Human Development Index (a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide);
  • strengthening the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which this blog refers to as “a poor relation compared to other world bodies such as the International Monetary Fund,” so it acquires the same political clout as the World Trade Organisation;
  • concrete deliverables around sustainable energy for all, investment in water, and enhanced food security.

Alongside this, it is crucial to adhere to fulfilling existing commitments, such as the Rio conventions on climate, biodiversity and desertification.

The European Union will continue to be a big player. It allocated more than $70 billion last year to development co-operation activities - that’s more than half of world Overseas Development Assistance. Many middle and low-income countries insist that sustainable development is the goal, so that green economy tools should be seen as a means to achieve this. If promoting green growth is the means, then we need far greater involvement from key players in ministries of economics, industry, and finance. What would it take to get Ministers of Finance to come to Rio? If they’re not there, it’s hard to see how Rio 2012 takes us further than we were twenty years ago.

So while Rio+20 is seen as stemming from a set of environmental concerns, we have got to get broader buy-in to weave these debates into a broader global fabric for the 21st century.

Camilla Toulmin is the Director of IIED.

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