The Rio+20 Conference has come and gone. Lots of analysis will go into figuring out what went right and what went wrong about the Conference. This is a first pass at giving grades to different aspects of the outcome. I’ll reassess in a couple months, particularly on those aspects which might see some significant movement…or might not. There was the formal negotiations but also the informal connections and commitments, fostered in formal side panels, the People’s Summit, and other activities.
Formal Negotiations. The only bright spot of formal negotiations was that the negotiations actually came up with a document. After the late negotiation crises in Copenhagen, this should not be underestimated. Commitments made by states were few and far between without any significant commitment other than to keep thinking about some issues (like oceans, climate change, etc.). Sustainable Development Goals should be considered incomplete because nothing really was decided at Rio+20. Without either of these constructed and built, the overall goal of articulating the ‘Green Economy’ should be considered a failure. In terms of providing institutional framework for sustainable development, the negotiations similarly fizzled and resulted in nothing. The institutional picture remains as confused as before. Funding and implementation got some small improvements in the outcome text with states promising to think a lot about both. But, once again, it is no small measure that states were able to agree on something. WTO negotiations are in a permanent holding pattern, Climate negotiations are falling apart, UN appears irrelevant in a host of world problems, and the financial crisis is straining a host of institutions. A C+is a generous score for this which is simply there because of the grades of all the other efforts that achieving weak texts amounts to multilateral successes.
Informal Connections and Commitments. However, a lot of people have emphasized that it is not simply the formal conference that matters and that with thousands of side panels, organized connections at the People’s summit, and elsewhere, there may be a lively opportunity that grows out of Rio from these. The Conference website has put up a formal area for the listing and publication of Voluntary Commitments by states, International Organizations, businesses, and others. At the time of writing, it counts 708 of these voluntary commitments and is bound to increase. These grades may change substantially by the next grading period, but right now: States have committed to some fairly basic changes (Mauritius committed to actually monitor its protected areas…for example. They did other policies as well, but this one had to be picked on) and commitments by businesses are non-specific and weak (“will work toward the more efficient management”). At the time of writing, both are getting ‘C’ grades in order to encourage continued effort, but lower grades are probably more warranted. Unlike Johannesburg and Rio 1992, this conference also did not seem to set any new priorities in projects and efforts. A clearly articulated idea of the ‘Green Economy’ could have done this, maybe ‘Planetary Boundaries’ could have done this, or ‘Vulnerability’ if it were central…but regardless, a ‘C’ to encourage continued efforts but it isn’t clear if the progress is actually happening. By far the highest grades received for the conference are in terms of energized civil society and transparency of discussions. Although there were some closed sessions and private huddles; in general, this process was open to non-state groups. One problem was the long distances between the People’s summit and the formal negotiations. This may have been a logistical decision, but it did decrease the ability to travel back and forth between the two areas. Civil society did appear to be energized. This may be for many reasons and some may be energized because they are now determined to increase pressure on states and businesses, others may believe the lesson was that we can’t rely upon the state system for environmental progress, still others were inspired by the People’s Summit, and others by some of the formal connections made at side panels. Some of these may prove to be crucial others may prove to be disruptive. Regardless, civil society should be energized for a certain amount of time following this conference. How long that lasts remains an open question.
Overall Grade=C-. If you don’t get at least a ‘C’ on the Sustainable Development Goals, then the grade falls to a D+ and that is unacceptable. Lots of work to do before the next grading period. I have hope still, particularly that some of the informal connections will bubble over into changed practices around the world. But, the road forward is steep. Let’s strengthen those voluntary commitments! Let’s see what civil society does! Let’s get working on those sustainable development goals! Time to improve the grade.